AAA Living featured “Prairie Prose” in their May/June issue. It took me until Oct. 2nd to read it. Willa Cather lived near and in Red Cloud, Nebraska. She wrote fiction patch-worked from the lives of those around her.
The home is frame and small, there weren’t a lot of possessions to house. When my mother, my young daughters and I visited it, I climbed the stairs to her room, stood there and wondered what inspired her to write about the ordinariness of Nebraska. Home to me, it doesn’t seem all that interesting. She, however, captured the pioneer’s spirits, some so tortured with longing for the old country they took their life to get back.
A master at creating life-like characters, in “My Antonia,” she speaks of those who moved here to escape their past. Burdens carried took ‘now’ time. Simple pleasures were missed. Confession wasn’t enough to erase their remorse. When snow is piling up, and the wind is howling like wolves, I get a bone chill thinking of the brothers and the bride. Just a story, I tell myself.
“O Pioneers!” engraved in my mind the people's grit and determination. Our paternal ancestors immigrated from Sweden. Winter must have made them feel right at home. Willa was born in Virginia in 1873 and moved here with her family when she was nine. The bare landscape saddened her; she loved and missed trees.
People left the familiar to establish new communities with their traditions in food and worship, methods of farming and building. Breaking sod was hard, hard work. Weather came without Doppler warning. Swarms of grasshoppers ate them out, blizzards froze them out, droughts wiped them out and prairie fires burned them out. Threats of Indian raids, disease and loneliness added to their woes. Women ached to talk to another woman. As a child, my grandmother was living in a sod house when their cow broke through the roof―more dust, grass and bugs to contend with. The pioneers tried to persevere, worked hard, carried water and didn’t have a lot to eat. In their photos, no one is smiling. One thing about this part of the country, the people know more about work than how to relax.
Open prairie prompted farmers to raise a barn in a day or two with the help of their neighbors. Glad for the company, women cooked, baked and gossiped. The men built with wood nails and enjoyed the women’s food, such as fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, fruit and meat pies, whatever was in season, and a wagon load of bread. My maternal grandfather, Roy Williamson, played harmonica and fiddle. If there was a dance at the end of the day, I can see him fiddling Turkey in the straw, his dark curly hair bouncing and his brown eyes twinkling.
I was fourteen when I first visited Red Cloud for our state-wide Rainbow Girls convention. A small town, we brought our pretty dresses and stayed with families. Overnight a prisoner in the jail picked the bricks out and escaped. Hearing about it on the news made us afraid to leave the house. Willa Cather might have seen it as an idea for a story.
2009 Red Convertible Travel Series