Reading (and traveling): My Antonia by Willa Cather

Red barn near Lincoln. Go cornhuskers, go!

Red barn near Lincoln. Go cornhuskers, go!

Earlier in the month, I was driving through Nebraska, and decided to avoid the University of Nebraska game (traffic around Lincoln is normally pretty calm, unless everyone is driving to the game with red N pennants waving from their windows).

I looped down to Red Cloud, not far from Kansas’ border, to see the landscape described in Willa Cather’s novel, My Ántonia. If you haven’t read it (either because it wasn’t in your high school curriculum, or you didn’t grow up in the USA), this slim book is worth trying if for nothing else to give a sense of the open expanse, and lonely beauty of the land the author grew up surrounded by. It is interesting to see how the people of Red Cloud peopled many of Willa Cather’s most memorable stories. (Can’t figure out if the people in the stories were long past, or if anyone felt nervous being friends with her, with her ability to transform local gossip into stories.)

I started rereading My Ántonia prior to setting off on my journey, and it was lovely to be see the landscape scroll out in front of me while I drove. One of my cousins had mentioned that many of the people of Nebraska were leaving the areas where their ancestors had homesteaded, and were deserting the land for the cities. And Red Cloud seemed no different, although possibly everyone was watching the Cornhusker game. On a Saturday afternoon, their downtown looked deserted and there were few options for lunch until I got further north above Division street. I was too late to get into the Cather Childhood home, but I had a lovely time exploring the Red Cloud Opera House, and driving around town to see the different locations mentioned in the Willa Cather Foundation Town Tour. The people who work in the Willa Cather Foundation were lovely, and helped me to find a copy of One of Ours, Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that seems to be unobtainable elsewhere. Link to a virtual Catherland here: http://www.virtualcather.org/, where you can virtually visit the prairie at dawn, or look inside the Cather childhood home from your own living room.

It’s hard to explain the appeal of the prairie. Most places in Nebraska have planted redcloudprairietrees to remind people of the Europe or eastern US they left for homesteading. There are few trees, maybe a few cottonwoods, and the hot wind from Kansas buffets you as the temperature rises to 100 degrees F. There isn’t a person to be seen if you go down a hill away from the highway.  But here is the landscape as it was, with prairie chickens that dance in the early morning, and a world filled with relentlessly blue skies above. Regret: I wish I had thought to find a closer hotel, so I could have gone out there to stay for the sunset and watch the stars come out.

If you want a unique visit to an author’s house, Red Cloud and the prairie provides a place that is still rooted in the world that the author wrote about. Filled with grit blown by the wind, tucked away, and worth the drive.

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