Category Archives: Cather, Willa

‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’ by Willa Cather

slavegirlThis, Willa Cather’s last novel, published in 1940, is unique in that the action takes place in Virginia, the place of her birth and where she lived until ten years old, rather than in Nebraska which she regarded as her home.

Sapphira, a middle-aged white woman, has inherited black slaves from her father and sees nothing wrong in keeping them as domestic servants and as workers in the mill run by her husband, Henry Colbert.  This is despite Henry being uncomfortable about this arrangement and the intense opposition of her youngest daughter, Rachel.  Having suffered from dropsy for a number of years and now confined to a wheelchair, Sapphira has become increasingly bitter and has taken against Nancy, the young mulatto girl, working as a maid in her house.   Henry and Rachel are well aware of Sapphira’s tendency to be rude and sarcastic to those she doesn’t like, but Rachel is shocked when her mother invites a relative who is a known rake into their house, tells Nancy to see to his room and virtually invites him to rape her.  Nancy is distraught and the only person she can appeal to is Rachel.

If you enjoyed Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, you will enjoy ‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’.  Even though the action in Mockingbird takes place some eighty years later and was written over a century later, the same sorts of characters appear and the same sorts of issues, because, as we are all familiar, the Civil War and freedom for slaves only resolved a few of the issues for black people in the South.   Preserving the southern ‘way of life’ (think ‘Gone with the Wind’) is mentioned repeatedly, even though, in the introduction to the book, we are told that Willa Cather found these sorts of attitudes sentimental.

Sapphira’s slaves are domestic servants, rather than cotton pickers driven into the ground, and, the way the book is written, their lot appears no worse than that of other domestic servants.  Till (the housekeeper and Nancy’s mother) is devoted to Sapphira, and views her relationship with her mistress as more important than her daughter.  Henry offers Samuel, his senior millhand manumission and a possible position in a Quaker mill in Pennsylvania (not a slave state), but Samuel refuses, implying that Henry is betraying and forsaking him.  The slaves love Sapphira because she is grand, and how they expect a mistress to be, whereas for liberal Rachel they have less respect.  Willa wrote from her own memories of Virginia in her childhood, of her family and of neighbours, and, in the last chapter, when Nancy returns, she interposes herself, as a sick child in bed.  It is difficult to work out how true a picture she is conjuring up, whether it has mellowed over the years or whether Willa, as a child, only saw one side.  I doubt if it is a white apology, because, in all her other books, Willa tells it as it is.  However, she frequently refers to the slaves as ‘darkies’; we in the twenty-first century would regard this as shockingly politically incorrect, but we have to accept that things were different in the 1930s when Willa was writing.

The uncluttered storyline moves gently, with frequent flashbacks, to Sapphira’s youth, to Till being in Winchester with her mentor, Mrs Meacham, to Jezebel being captured in Africa and taken on board a slave ship, and to Rachel’s brief sojourn in Washington.

This is great stuff.  Do read it.

Saffira and the Slave Girl can be obtained from various sources online, including antiquarian booksellers, The Brick Row Bookshop.

‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ by Willa Cather

I often come back to Willa Cather when I’m feeling stressed and in the need of the literary equivalent of a sweet hot chocolate, which is very unfair to this versatile and perceptive American author.

Published in 1927 and possibly the most well-known of Willa Cather’s works, this is a collection of short stories, definitely not a novel, despite what other reviewers might say.  Certainly, its pages are concerned, consistently, with two main characters, Bishop Latour and his friend, Father Valliant, Roman Catholic missionaries sent by Rome to New Mexico, to rekindle and redirect the Catholics faith amongst the Americans, the Mexicans and the Indians, many of whom live in remote settlements,  without sight of a church or or a priest for generations.  When the two missionaries visited these people, whose religion was intensely-felt but wayward, they were seized upon to take confession, marry cohabiting couples, baptise children and say Mass.  Maria, who finds Bishop Latour lost in the desert, exhausted and dehydrated, runs back to her family, crying, “A priest!”

The bishop (as he is for nine-tenths of the story) and Father Valliant’s job is to correct errors which have come about through forgetting, when people have had no contact with their church, and deliberate misunderstanding, like that of the priest who tells the Bishop that lexical celibacy is irrelevant in the Americas and in the nineteenth century.  The bishop’s response is always gentle remonstrance, and sometimes he lets things lie, because the good that the person concerned is doing offsets his canonical error.  In fact, this book reads more like a collection of memoirs of a real person than a work of fiction.  Although each chapter follows through a set of incidents, there are no real story arcs and no obstacles in the technical literary sense.

Bishop Latour and Father Valliant are both saintly characters, the bishop more scholarly, reserved and dignified, whereas Valliant is a compulsive and courageous man of action, venturing even into the gold fields of Colorado when in late middle age, putting himself in danger, wearing himself out and driving himself into an early grave.

What I admire so much about Willa Cather is how well she gets herself into a Catholic mindset, when much of her other work concerns non-conformist Protestants.  She enters into the Catholic way of thinking in full measure, showing us how the two main characters venerated the Virgin Mary and saw visions of her and the Holy Family.  It is clear that she too was moved by these very Catholic things.  My only reservation is whether a ‘real’ Catholic would be as ready to allow digression from received Roman doctrine, as Bishop Latour was.

Do read ‘Death Come to the Archbishop’.  I love older literature.   Everybody should get into older literature from time to time.  Gives you a sense of perspective.  I’m sorry I can’t give you a link, but this very old iPad refuses to copy  and paste, and I’m battling with chancy (and expensive) internet in Indian hotels.   It’s very easy to find on Google.

I’m trying to put together a travel blog but am failing, for the reasons above  – hotel Internet, ancient iPad (and no access to ‘proper’ computer)  and lack of time.  I suspect it won’t happen.  Oh well.  Nice thought.




Review of 'My Antonia' by Willa Catha

Available from Amazon.

Apparently ‘My Antonia’ is one of the staples of the American school English literature syllabus.  If so, good on them.  Much better than the tripe my very right-on English teachers got me to read – mainly Dylan Thomas and D H Lawrence.  I hated them then and I haven’t looked at their work since.  As I have said in a previous post, I read the nineteenth century classics in my twenties whilst commuting on trains up and down to London – but, Dear Reader, I didn’t come across Willa at that time, more’s the pity.

‘My Antonia’ is supposed to be the reminiscence of New York lawyer, Jim Burden, of his days as pioneer in Nebraska, Willa’s favourite stamping ground. The story starts with Jim and new immigrant, Antonia, as children, attempting, with their families, to make a living on the barren, uncultivated land, where the red grass grew. They learned to survive the harsh winters, although Antonia’s poor father, a delicate musician from ‘the old country’, did not see out even one. The story spans several decades as the children grow up, enjoying life as teenagers in the small frontier town of Black Hawk and Jim moving on to the big cities to university and to practise law.

Red grass, NebraskaWilla Catha’s work is always charming and innocent and the people so sweet and gentle that you wish that you lived amongst them, despite the harsh conditions. This is a very old fashioned work, which meanders circuitously through the years, with little or no plot except that of young people growing up and taming the harsh, virgin land. Loose ends abound. Antonia’s mother was clearly demanding and difficult, and the reader might expect her disagreeable character to affect the course of the story in some way, but she just fades from the pages. The same happens with her domineering brother Ambrosch, and Krajieck who overcharged her family for their land and the cave they lived in. Characters move in and move out, mirroring the structure of real life, more than a novel. Towards the end of the book, Larry Donovan figures largely in Antonia’s life but is probably mentioned less than half a dozen times. The writer, who appears in the first chapter only, doesn’t like Jim’s wife, but this theme isn’t developed either.

It is unclear who is the main character. The title would predicate Antonia herself and certainly she features largely, but Jim tells the story in the first person, with large portions of it to do solely with Jim himself and other characters, without Antonia. The relationship between Antonia and Jim is an enigma not properly resolved; at first playmates, then good friends, although they both had many other friends – lovers, never.

If ‘My Antonia’ had been taken to a modern writers’ workshop, it would’ve been torn to shreds by so-called experts, but yet, Dear Reader, I felt more in tune with the characters in this book, more involved and generally more interested, than in anything that written to the ‘rules’ we writers have to abide by now.

So would I recommend ‘My Antonia’. Yes, definitely.

Review of 'O Pioneers' by Willa Catha

This book can be found on Amazon here.

‘O Pioneers’ starts with five year old Emil Bergson crying because his kitten is stuck up a tree and seeking the help of his sister, Alexandra.  At the end, the reader realises that this opening scene is an allegory for the novel as a whole.

When I readfredericksburg_room2 an old fashioned novel like this one, which was published in 1913, I wonder why I bother with contemporary fiction. This is the story of a woman farmer, Alexander Bergson, pitting her wits and holding her own with the land and her small village community.  Where’s the explicit sex?  There is none.  When does mc get drunk?  She doesn’t.  What drugs does she do?  She doesn’t.  Where are the self-destruct actions which typify many a spoilt, self-indulgent and navel-gazing modern novel characters?  Alexandra keeps her head at all times… as you would expect of a pioneer.  She is a protagonist who never let the reader down.  For modern examples, think of Anita Roddick and Karren Brady, single-minded, strong-willed and a good business head.

So what was there to write about?  Loads.   Like all best novels, ‘O Pioneers’ focuses on a family within a small community of Swedish immigrants, two characters in particular – Alexandra and her brother, Emil.  Other characters are kept to a minimum, a few, like ‘Ivar’, the eccentric horse-doctor, very distinct, whereas the rest, like Alexander’s two older brothers, were kept in the background.  Many points of view are used.  Midway through, I thought that this was going to be a story about the ups and downs of farming, good years and bad years, but it’s more than that, about how someone copes with the success  she had fought for.

All writing manuals advise fiction writers to allow their main characters at least one flaw and Alexandra did have one – she was too phlegmatic and unimaginative to put two and two together when two characters are getting too close.  Her reaction when she does find out is completely true to the period in which the novel was set and – inevitably – very non pc.  The emotional punch is consistently understated, but the author doesn’t shirk from killing off the person most dear to mc .

Like all older fiction, there was quite a lot of ‘tell’, evidence that this technique can be used effectively.  However, unlike many works of this era, ‘Ofredericksburg_room1 Pioneers’ did not include vast tracts describing scenery, but the atmosphere was implicit, with frequent references to ‘the old country’ and ‘proper Americans’.  I was put in mind of the later L M Montgomery novels.

So do I recommend it for reading?  Yes, emphatically.   Did I learn anything as a writer?  Yes.  It is possible to write an interesting and engaging novel about goodies.

The photos in this post are not of Nebraska, where ‘O Pioneers’ was set (because I haven’t been there), but taken by my husband at the Pioneer Museum in the delightful ‘German’ town of Fredericksburg, in Texas.