Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Song of the Lark

Book One of Sixteen

My apologies for the sporadic posts. I am continually surprised by how long it takes to recuperate from serious illness at this age. Not feeling bad now, just low energy and low interest level in things that used to occupy my mind like an obsession. Some things remain constant -- I am reading several of the books from my 2016 reading challenge. This is a challenge to read through at least sixteen of the books in our "To Be Read" stacks. This is an update on the first of my sixteen. Have you joined the challenge?

My personal reading road map has guided me through myriad detours and strange meanderings over time. Willa Cather is an American author I have known about but not really taken that seriously. Considered a "western" writer, Cather wrote in the late 19th and first part of the 20th century. Stories about pioneers and the hardscrabble life do not usually interest me much. You see, I prefer English literature and have pretty much ignored American writers. I have lots of their books, but usually pass them over when looking for something to read. Is the writing too raw and new? Not serious enough? Perhaps, as I do like the history, established tradition, and the legacy of the ancients found in English literature. Snobbish prejudice aside, many years ago I read My Antonia by Willa Cather. I remember being moved to tears by the beauty of the writing, the story, and the feeling of being there, on the Nebraska prairie, as I read. For reasons I cannot even now imagine, I never read another of Cather's works or thought about her much, until now.

About a year ago, I was reading through a collection of nature writing by women, Sisters of the Earth, edited by Lorraine Anderson. One of pieces was an extract from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark. Here is a snippet from the biographical sketch of Cather at the beginning of the piece:

"Cather's work has been praised for its lyrical and profound evocations of nature...The land is a central figure in her mature fiction; a primary theme is that if treated properly, the land is a source of well-being and -- in the case of struggling young opera singer Thea Kronborg, protagonist of Cather's third and longest novel, "The Song of the Lark" -a source of deep solace. Kronborg has tried to transcend the limits of her upbringing in the frontier Colorado town of Moonstone by escaping to Chicago; when that attempt has seemingly failed, she finds respite in Panther Canyon in the Southwest."

When I read the extract from Sisters of the Earth titled The Ancient People, I knew I had to someday read The Song of the Lark. Once again, Cather's writing was so evocative, I felt I was there, in the deep, winding crack in the earth called Panther Canyon. Here, where long-abandoned cliff dwellings occupy the inner gorge within the canyon:

"The dead city lay at the point where the perpendicular outer wall ceased and the V-shaped inner gorge began. There a stratum of rock softer than those above had been hollowed out by the action of time until it was like a deep groove running along the sides of the canyon. In this hollow (like a great fold in the rock) the Ancient People had built their houses of yellowish stone and mortar. The overhanging cliff above made a roof two hundred feet thick.

In both walls of the canyon the same streak of soft rock had been washed out, and the long horizontal groove had been built up with houses. The dead city had thus two streets, one set in either cliff, facing each other across the ravine, with a river of blue air between them.

The canyon twisted and wound like a snake, and these two streets went on for four miles or more.

All the houses in the canyon were clean with the cleanness of sun-baked, wind-swept places, and they all smelled of the tough little cedars that twisted themselves into the very doorways. One of these rock-rooms Thea took for her own...The day after she came Henry brought over on one of the pack-ponies a roll of Navajo blankets...and Thea lined her cave with them. The room was not more than eight by ten feet, and she could touch the stone roof with her fingertips. This was her old idea: a nest in a high cliff, full of sun."

Thea Kronborg, is a descendant of Swedish immigrants, and is one of a large family living in southern Colorado, desert country, in the late 19th century. Her father is a clergyman in the small town of Moonstone. Thea's mother recognizes a streak of musical genius in her daughter, and arranges for her to learn to play the piano. Her teacher, an alcoholic German musician, is a stern taskmaster. He too recognizes Thea's talent and pushes her to embrace her ability before she really understands what it is. Over time, Thea becomes aware that she is different from her brothers and sisters, and from her schoolmates. She feels the constraints of the small too-close community and finally breaks free. She travels to Chicago where she studies piano with a well-known concert pianist. When he has to leave because of a career opportunity, he hears Thea sing and is sure she is headed in the wrong direction with her piano studies. He arranges for her to continue her musical studies, and convinces her that her true musical talent is in her voice. Over time, Thea studies, learns the "ropes" of performance art, and then, just as she is about to launch her career, suffers a physical setback, contracting a serious case of pneumonia which nearly kills her. During her long recovery, she is invited to travel to the Southwest, to a friend's ranch for a healing rest. It is while visiting the ranch that she makes a personal breakthrough in her relationship to her art.

Thea stays at the ranch for weeks, making the trek into the canyon every day to occupy her "nest". There she finds badly needed solace and gathers into herself the canyon's raw energy and the spiritual echoes of the Ancient People.

"Not only did the world seem older and richer to Thea now, but she herself seemed older. She had never been alone for so long before, or thought so much. Nothing had ever engrossed her so deeply as the daily contemplation of the cliff...Here everything was simple and definite...Her mind was like a ragbag into which she had been frantically thrusting whatever she could grab. And here she must throw this lumber away. The things that were really hers separated themselves from the rest. Her ideas were simplified, became sharper and clearer. She felt united and strong."

Thea emerges from the canyon with renewed purpose as she pursues her musical career. She had gone through a "vision quest" of a sort, and now understands and believes in her gift. As she explains to her mentor, "Dr. Archie":

" 'You see, Doctor Archie, what one really strives for in art is not the sort of thing you are likely to find when you drop in for a performance at the opera. What one strives for is so far away, so beautiful' -- she lifted her shoulders with a long breath, folded her hands in her lap and sat looking at him with a resignation which made her face noble -- 'that there's nothing one can say about it.' "

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to re-read My Antonia. It is on my Kindle. Many of Willa Cather's works are free for Kindle download, as they are in the public domain.

I hope to see you back here soon with another reading challenge update. This seems to be the right time to zip through these books as they are there in my TBR stack and so I do not have to do a lot of creative thinking about what to read next.