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DESTINATION: NEBRASKA

A Literary Visit to the Heartland

Getting off the interstate and into century-old towns where Willa Cather and Bess Aldrich popularized rural values in fiction that's still widely read

September 03, 2000|BEVERLY LAUDERDALE | Beverly Lauderdale is a freelance writer in Martinez, Calif

RED CLOUD, Neb. — Here in the southeastern corner of Nebraska lie two country towns with a common boast: Each was home to a writer who won wide acclaim and popularity for the deft way she defined her time and place here.

Willa Cather, of Red Cloud, wrote fiction, poetry and essays and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922; her "My Antonia" is on countless high school required-reading lists. Bess Streeter Aldrich, of Elmwood, also was a novelist, and was best known for her short stories--more than 100--published in national women's magazines in the 1920s and '30s. There the similarity ends; the two women were as different in life as their writing styles.

Jan, my fellow Iowan friend from college days, and I often take vacation trips in search of writers' roots. Nebraska was a natural destination for us last May.

It was a sultry day, and storm clouds shadowed the plains as we drove into Red Cloud. The leaden sky leached the red color from bricks that paved the wide, old-fashioned main street.

We parked in front of the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank, built in 1889 and once owned by Silas Garber, a Red Cloud founder and Nebraska governor. Cather thinly disguised him as Capt. Forrester in "A Lost Lady," a novel that starts:

"Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those gray towns along the Burlington Railroad, which are so much grayer today than they were then. . . ."

The red-stone bank is now the Willa Cather Historical Center, full of memorabilia and open to people taking the center's tour.

Although Cather spent most of her adult life in New York, she grew up in Red Cloud. The town was, under various names, the center of her fictional world, which has been praised by critics and loved by readers as a celebration of the American pioneer heartland.

We began our pilgrimage with the $5 town tour, which involved our driving behind the guide's car. Our first stop was 1 1/2 blocks away, at the simple house the Cather family rented on Cedar Street, a short stroll to Papa Cather's insurance office.

The family Bible, in which the girl born as Wilella revised her birth date from 1873 to 1876, rested on a parlor stand. Her highchair was in the dining room beside the cherrywood table; jars of preserves that her mother had put up stood on a kitchen shelf.

Wooden stairs protested as we climbed to the attic, where the five Cather boys and two girls slept. Willa converted one corner into her own room, the acquisition of which "was one of the most important things that ever happened to her" (as she wrote in her semi-autobiographical 1915 novel "The Song of the Lark").

A chimney slanted toward exposed rafters, and to the side was the quilt-covered bed where the teenage Willa would lie, "watching the sunlight shine on the roses of her wall-paper" ("from Lark").

On our visit, wallpaper that covers the ceiling was flaking onto the bed, her shell collection and the "tall round wooden hat crate, from the clothing store," which (again quoting "Lark"), "standing on end and draped with cretonne, made a fairly steady table for her lantern."

Our next stop was a small brick Catholic church, the county's first, where Antonia Shimerda ("My Antonia") was wed. The church was only a few blocks from the Cather house, but, then, everything's just a few blocks away in a community of 1,200. In Willa's childhood, in the 1880s, the population neared 2,500, and the future in agriculture looked bright. Migrants from Eastern states, like the Cathers--Willa was born in Back Creek Valley, Va., in 1873--joined waves of European immigrants, like Antonia's Bohemian family, in staking farmland claims on the Nebraska prairie. Charles Cather failed at farming but found his footing selling farm insurance in town. The stories of struggling and distressed families in the area had a profound influence on Willa's writing.

The Cathers were members of Grace Episcopal Church, built in 1884. Willa returned for her parents' funerals there and had stained glass windows installed in their memory. Cather herself is buried in New Hampshire.

The church is open only for special occasions, as when an English professor who is also an Episcopal priest says Mass in Cather's memory every Dec. 7, her birth date.

Trains play a role in many of Cather's books, as they did in Nebraska's progress. The dark red Burlington station that she celebrated has been turned into a museum, with a stationmaster's desk, a board announcing train schedules, a coffin ready to be shipped, a silent telegraph. Our voices echoed, small and hollow, in the otherwise empty room. With the help of vintage photos on the walls, it wasn't hard to picture young Willa going off to college, full of vivid memories that would make the turn-of-the-century American prairie alive to generations of readers all around the world.

Our tour's last stop was the old bank, its main room now outfitted with Cather memorabilia.

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