Saturday, March 13, 2010

Remembering a spring break trip to Willa Cather's Red Cloud, Nebraska

Intro: Eight years ago, my wife Chris (shown above at left) and I bundled up our two kids and set out for a spring break trip to Nebraska. First stop: pick up our friends in Lincoln. Second stop: drive to Red Cloud for a literary sojourn. Spending an early spring day in a dusty prairie town may not be every family's idea of a good time. It's mine. Welcome to a Bookie's Spring Break.

Chris wants a Cather board.

She can choose from two big piles of generations-old boards ripped from Willa Cather's family home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. She picks gingerly through the pile on the winter-brown lawn, careful of the many jagged nails that once fastened the two-story front porch to the historic house which rises in front of us. The rest of us watch her progress. Two boys toss trashed boards into a big dumpster. A carpenter, who may be the father of the boys, saws two-by-eights for new porch decking. The house's current owner, a petite 40-something woman standing on the street next to her SUV, tells Chris that she could take all the boards if she wants them.

"Should have brought my truck," I say, kidding around. Unlike many of my fellow Wyomingites, I do not own a truck. A Yuppie minivan is my conveyance of choice. Still, a good number of historic Cather boards could go into my van's cargo space.

"I just want one," says Chris, surveying the pile as she might a stack of apples at the megamart. She is my wife of 20 years. While she grew up in a home devoid of books, she now is a voracious reader. Yet, she never has read any of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's books. She only cares about Cather because I do. The same goes for our friends Kate and Stephen, who accompany us to Red Cloud on this spring break day in 2002 for a dose of literary tourism.

A few blocks away, our kids play in the town playground, not really interested in strolling around this old burg looking at old houses. We keep in touch via walkie-talkies. "Everybody still alive over there?" I say into the tiny speaker. "No," replies my teen son Kevin, a writer but not (yet) a literary tourist. "We won't hurry then," I say. I hear kids screaming in the background. They are either ecstatic with happiness. Or being torn to pieces by a wolf pack from one of Cather's pioneer stories. Maybe a herd of cattle stampedes through this town of a thousand souls. Or the kids have stepped into a nest of prairie rattlers, the kind Cather's grandmother used to kill with a silver-tipped cane. Or the kids might be spooked by the ghosts of Cather and Antonia or Neighbor Rozicky flitting around the town square.

It is all about imagination. But if anybody is going to see a ghost today it's me. I have read My Antonia, many of Cather's stories, and seen the TV version of O Pioneers. My favorite story is The Sculptor's Funeral. It not only brings to life the chilled winter landscape of a town much like Red Cloud (but set across the border in Kansas). It also is a spooky reminder of the fate of the artist who grows up an oddball in a small town and will never be totally accepted for his/her quirky ways and intelligence. Paradoxically, this artist may deeply love the town and its people.

This must have been Cather's fate.

It's hard to know from the official literature of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Education Foundation. The pamphlet for the walking tour carries many references to the generosity of Cather and her family. The author donated two stained-glass windows and a walnut altar rail to the Grace Episcopal Church. Willa's father Charles and uncle-in-law helped build the town library, which opened in 1918, the same year as the end of WWI and the publication of My Antonia. Charles Cather's real estate office is the third stop on the tour. It is located on the west side of the town's main drag and across the street from the bank building that now houses the Cather archives and is owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society. We are in familiar "historic tour" mode here.

But the brochure also refers to some quirkier traits of the young Cather. While her father "made farm loans, wrote abstracts, and sold insurance" from his downtown office, the young author "had her laboratory for dissecting cats and dogs." The office must have been a curious mix of loan paperwork and cat gut pickled in formaldehyde. During high school, Willa worked at Dr. Cook's City Pharmacy, north on Webster Street on the next block. She took her pay "in books, a magic lantern, and the rose wallpaper for her home at Third and Cedar." According to the pamphlet, she installed the wallpaper herself and it's still on the walls in her room in this house. She learned about French novels from her family's Jewish neighbors, the Weiners, who spoke both German and French. She loved the downtown opera house, now under renovation, which helped spark a lifetime interest in opera. According to the brochure, "one can still read the name of Willa's brother, Douglas, and others scrawled on the stage walls."

What it doesn't talk about is the young Cather's first job delivering mail to county farms. That she was a tomboy who, like the "hired girl" Antonia, was proud of her muscles and liked to show them off. That she sliced open dead animals, hoping to learn how to be a veterinarian. That she showed up for freshman year at University of Nebraska dressed as her twin brother. That she probably was gay.

As a writer with urban sensibilities, I try to be kind to small towns. I want to avoid stereotypes: rural people are slack-jawed yokels, born-again zealots, Timothy McVeighs waiting to explode. There are others who try to dredge up the bucolic nature of Middle American small towns: Such a quaint little town with the most gorgeous antique shops! I picked up a great little butter churn for a song! And they had the cutest little restaurant!

Where I might give small-town residents the benefit of the doubt, Cather did not. Her novels and stories honestly show the vagaries of life in the small towns of the American prairie. The themes are universal: murder, rape, love, betrayal, and bigotry, to name some biggies. This is probably why her work still resonates 55 years after her death. Antonia is abused by a pillar of society. In death, the sculptor comes home to rest only to face the taunts of the townspeople. She’s pretty tough on city people too. Snooty artists get their comeuppance in Flavia and Her Artists. Opera snobs are skewered in The Song of the Lark.

Wonder what she would have thought of us 21st century literary tourists?

* * * * *

On this gorgeous spring day, we opt not to pay the five dollars that the Cather Society charges for the guided tour. This means we can’t actually get into most of the buildings in the Cather Historic District. We can't see the rose wallpaper in Willa's old bedroom. The churches and the archives are closed to us. We can't see the Willa Cather Animal Dissecting Room or go backstage at the opera house.

We can pick up historic boards from the lawn of Cather's Retreat Bed & Breakfast. We can tour the courthouse, site of the World War I trial of German immigrants in One of Ours, the book that won the author the Pulitzer in 1923. We can also tour the library that the Cathers' endowed. We're lucky that it is afternoon, since the Auld Public Library on Webster Street is only open from 2-5 p.m.

It is a neat old brick building and appropriately small for a small-town library. It loans books, videos, and cake pans. According to the librarian, the cake-pan idea came out of a need for a central place that provided residents with pans for special occasions. Star-shaped pans for Fourth of July cakes; heart-shaped ones for Valentine's day; huge pans for big events; and tiny ones for modest events. The library gets the occasional donated pan. Sometimes they get a bumper crop of pans with the passing of one of the town's leading bakers, an old woman who still took seriously the eating traditions of her German or Bohemian or Scandinavian roots.

This is Catherland, after all, whose rich ethnic heritage was celebrated in the author's many books. In turn, Nebraska celebrates her with what may be the largest historic district dedicated to an American writer. There are 17 stops on the Red Cloud historic tour. The 10-mile-long Willa Cather Roadway leads you into town. Overall, the Willa Cather Thematic District includes 190 sites in Webster County, including a 610-acre tract of native grassland owned by the Nature Conservancy and dedicated to Cather's memory.

All this might seem boring to those whose vacations center on DisneyWorld and Six Flags Over Anytown USA. Readers of all stripes, though, would have to admit that its a darn fine thing to have a town dedicated to a writer. We don't have many of them. And when we do, there may be some controversy involved. As we walk around Red Cloud, our friend Kate brings up her old stomping grounds of Salinas, California. Now home to the massive National Steinbeck Center, some Salinas old-timers are still smarting over their treatment in Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flats. Some people in Salinas still hate his guts, Kate says, noting that they are a little less likely to dislike Steinbeck if they own a restaurant or motel or one of the many small businesses that benefit from the library and its events, especially some of the big events happening in 2002, the centennial of the author's birth. Over the hills in Monterrey, some people still consider Steinbeck a nogoodnik and commie sympathizer, an anti-business and pro-union rabble-rouser who wrote the acerbic Cannery Row and the passionate East of Eden. That tradition sometimes lines their wallets.

It's tough to say if Cather's presence has the same effect on Red Cloud. Steinbeck and Cather are contemporaries. Both wrote of their hometowns and both won major literary prizes: Cather the Pulitzer, Steinbeck the Nobel. Both sometimes are disparagingly called regional writers and their work is sometimes seen as too sentimental and not obtuse enough for the deconstructionists who hold sway on campus these days.

Strangely, their staying power in academia is due to factors other than their writing. Cather was a lesbian but never wrote openly about homosexuality. She is read as often in Women's Studies or GLTB tracks as she is in English Departments. Oddly enough, while Steinbeck's lack of literay finesse gets short shrift in English departments, his leftist politics get him lots of attention in disciplines such as American Studies, Political Science, and Labor Studies departments at some urban eastern universities.

This first week of April 2002, the Center for Great Plains Studies and the Cather Project at University of Nebraska in Lincoln is hosting "Great Passions and Great Aspirations: A Willa Cather Symposium on Literature and Opera." Conferees can sit in windowless rooms and hear about Cather and opera, Cather and WWI, and other subjects. They can attend a performance of The Bohemian Girl at the Kimball Recital Hall in the evening. Cather saw this popular 19th century opera in 1888 in the Red Cloud Opera House. The conference wraps up with a bus tour to Red Cloud and surroundings. This should put a little economic development into Red Cloud which, like most small towns on the Great Plains, is in dire need of it. Those that don't get it are likely to dry up and blow away.

We do our best to help. I buy hard-to-find Cather audiobooks at the Cather gift shop downtown. I also buy postcards and some cool notecards. I want to send a card and a memento to my ailing father in Florida, who let me freely browse his library once I learned to read. On our way out of town, we drop by Sugar & Spice for ice cream cones plus a massive cheeseburger for my growing son. I would love to browse the used-book store on the main drag but it is closed because the owner winters in Arizona.

We also have our Willa Cather Memorial Board. Or Chris does. She finds just the right one. It's a very old one-by-four, rough on one side, gray paint peeling on the other. It has a lone nail jutting from one end. She and her board pose for several photos along our tour. We have fun with the board, calling it "The Willa" or just-plain "Plank," just as that kid does in the cartoon show Ed, Edd, and Eddie. I ask Chris what she will do with the board when we get home to Cheyenne. She shrugs. "I just wanted it," she says with a smile. She has her memento. I have mine. As we leave Red Cloud in mid-afternoon, I turn on The Troll Garden and fast forward to The Sculptor's Funeral. I can’t hear very well, because the girls are a bit raucous in the back seat. But at least I catch the opening as we head back north to the interstate:

"A group of the townspeople stood on the station siding of a little Kansas town, awaiting the coming of the night train, which was already twenty minutes overdue."

This is why I have come: the author's words, the magic they make when they are knitted together with precision and anger and compassion.

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