Tuesday, August 13, 2013

willa cather and grand manan island

Grand Manan Island
In recent travels through Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, I discovered that a cottage on the property where I stayed turned out to be Willa Cather's summer home. Willa Cather is the American novelist who wrote O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and Song of the Lark.

I have read most of Cather, but one, Song of the Lark, is a novel that I have read, re-read, and studied in graduate school. I have recommended it to many, and often reflect on the life of Thea Kronenberg, the novel's protagonist, as Cather wrote her. In graduate school, I studied the novel in an American Novels course that focused on identity. Thea's identity is tied to her art. Her talent is what allows her to escape the small western town that she is born to and live outside the expectations of what is to be a woman in the early 1900s. I read one account of Cather's novels that toward the end of her career, she was not an important voice in early modernism. Her novels were old-fashioned. I believe a man wrote the review, for what Cather does is capture what is still true today: women are expected to marry, have children, and die. Emily Dickinson says it most poetically: Born - Bridalled - Shrouded.

Thea is go-to for me because I understand her struggle. She doesn't know where the talent comes from except that it is a friendly spirit that is a part of her. Her mother encourages her musicality and allows her to move to Chicago from Colorado to pursue her piano lessons. Of course, it is not the piano that is her talent, rather her voice. And as a girl born to a family in a back water western town, Thea obviously has supporters. Her mother is a champion of her. She has music herself, and knowing her own circumstance, is able to encourage, not deny, her daughter. Plus, Thea has the accidental financial assistance of her friend, Ray Kennedy, who thought that he would marry Thea, but dies in a railroad incident and leaves her his savings.

I cannot play the piano, and some would say that I cannot sing. But I get Thea. I was not born in a town that was a spec of dust on a map, but I was born to a time when everyone was still trying to figure out what to do with girls. While I was in school, I have to think that someone like Hilary Clinton was on her charge up to the top of the mound. Though she side-stepped, married Bill in what seems to me to be not a marriage of traditional values, but one that suited her needs (his too ... she's an awfully smart cookie). But she did it with Bill, Thea did it without. Old fashioned said the critic, well, I'm thinking that Cather was well ahead of her time.

Cather's Cottage on Grand Manan Island
Thea has a love interest: Fred. He is also unconventional. And whenever I read the novel, I long for someone like him because he lets Thea be herself. She's not easy to pin down. Her ambition and her idea of what her life should be like isn't conventional. This is what I get. I have not led a conventional life either. I am unmarried. Childless. And though I don't have a BIG career or a famous following or am like Hilary Clinton, I am strongly myself. And I don't mean that one can't come into one's own and not be partnered, but I do think that how I've lived so far wouldn't have been possible if I had been securely tied down with a second whose ideas of how to live played half, if not more, a role in the decision making process. I don't think that I'm selfish, that's not it either.

Is Thea happy? Yes. She is true to herself, and that is the key to this. As men have forever had the freedom to do as they please, women have not, and still don't I would argue. Cather herself led an Thea-like life, but what is disturbing to me is that because she never married and travelled with a constant companion, her sexuality is in question. I suppose there is reason enough to be interested in those Peopledotcom kind of snippets of information, but why is it that? It isn't enough that she was Willa. The cottage on the small  island in the Atlantic was her escape. She would look out at the cove that I wondered at every day that I was there and wrote. Her talent, her drive, her self were the women that she characterized in her novels. They were like her ... brave, driven, and focused.

A note about the picture above: Cather's cottage was set apart from the others down a forested path. I wandered down and was happy to find it. Cars were on the drive and I worried that I would be intrusive to the happy vacationers. The dog, seen at the bottom of the picture, bounded up to me with welcome. He encouraged me to take the picture. And right as I quickly snapped this one,  a woman came out to get the dog. She was not very forthcoming, nor happy that I was there. She dragged the dog in the house, and I apologized to her if I was a nucance. If it were I, I think that I would spend the week on the porch waiting for people to come by to talk about the woman who built the cottage. I think that dog would be right there with me.

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