Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “prairie”

Poet Appreciate #1: Willa Cather

English: grass at , located on west side of ju...

Nebraska-Kansas prairie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most recognize Willa Cather as a writer of prairie prose; however, before O Pioneers! came out in 1913, she had published a book of poems entitled April Twilights in 1903. The following poem from that book of poetry served as the prologue to O Pioneers!

Prairie Spring
by Willa Cather

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

Cather announces the coming of spring through abounding sensory imagery and metaphors. This poem encapsulates her mastery of description and exemplifies her love of the prairie. Where she found poetry in a land, many only found hardship and heartaches as they tried to subdue tangled, tawny grasses under their plow.

Portrait of Willa Cather

Portrait of Willa Cather (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prairie Love


Growing up with the ocean ever present in my life, I couldn’t  fathom living  without it. The salty tang of the air, the lullaby rhythm of the waves, the restoring sandy walks–I couldn’t imagine or even desire living apart from its presence.

And yet, for the past twenty years I have done so. I traded the ocean for trees and mountains. The ocean is still a part of me, though we are now parted. There are aspects of my adopted environment that have also become woven into my person. I call this the sense of setting.


Because of my familiarity and connection with the ocean, forests, and mountains, I find myself drawn to reading about unfamiliar landscapes, and for some reason my list of setting interests includes an abundance of stories about the prairie.

Initially, I don’t think I could bear the flatness, the unyielding run to the horizon from end to end, nor bear the extremes of seasons and the monotony of view. This is where the marksmanship and craft of writing happens. Writers, poets, authors portray the prairie in such a way I find myself surrounded by the grass, the wind, and witness vicariously the openness and beauty through another’s eyes. The sense of place.

Recently two writers have presented their sense of place, their love of the prairie so profoundly, my paradigm has shifted. I now understand the fullness of this unique setting, and respect it and perhaps even admire it, which replaces my former disdain. True writing,  the skill of a wordsmith can do this.

While I have read many prairie pioneer books in my life, Laura Ingalls Wilder being the first, my most recent read is Willa Cather. She provided readers with a portrait of the midwest through her trilogy Oh Pioneers, My Antonia, and Song of the Lark. A memorable passage from My Antonia:

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
Cover of "My Ántonia (Dover Thrift Editio...

Cover of My Ántonia (Dover Thrift Editions)

Cather presents both the starkness of the prairie and the greatness. The plough represents the solitary efforts of those who tried to tame the vastness of that flat, grassy expanse, and while the abandoned plough could have been viewed as sad or even tragic in its loneliness, Cather displays it as heroic.  And this is the view I now have of the prairie. It is like the ocean in its vastness, its grasses the tide upon the land. Those who worked it by tilling the land, navigating its immensity with their ploughs, horses, and tractors are much like those who navigated the ocean with their own crafts of boat, steamers, and ships. Both land and sea represent the need to explore the unknown and forge a living  from it.

Another view comes from today’s Poem-a-Day offering:

Poppies on the Wheat
by Helen Hunt Jackson
Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I,–I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.
English: , located on west side of just north ...

English: , located on west side of just north of the Nebraska-Kansas border in southern . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I smile, too, grasping the juxtaposition of frivolity of the simple flower merged the purpose of the land.

I may never go to Kansas or Nebraska, but I can say I have traveled to their prairies.


Spring Came on Forever

Spring Came on Forever by Bess Streeter Aldrich

From the book:

This is the story of two midwestern families and the starnge way in which their paths crossed. It begins in Illinois in the year 1866, and end in Nebraska in the present one [1935], severed from all that went before and all that will continue beyond a thing of incompleteness.

Aldrich blends together a portrait of the harshness of prairie pioneer life and that of an unconventional love story.  Amalia Holmsdorfer, a sweet young girl of seventeen, finds herself attracted to twenty-one year Matthias Meier, the young clerk who sold her stern German father the soap-making kettle.  Matthias also finds himself attracted to Amalia and begins secretly courting her–even though she has been pledged in marriage to a man of her father’s choosing.  Amalia and Matthias plan to run away together, yet their plans meet up with the fury of flooded roads and even though Matthias attempts to meet her in Nebraska before she marries, he again meets up with one of nature’s blockades.  Matthias and Amalia miss each other by mere hours and she marries the wrong man.

So goes the begins a love story that will span three and four generations.  Aldrich, writing in the style prevalent of her time, reveals the story in an omniscient narrator fashion.  It’s as if we are sitting in a cozy living room and listening to a tale of long ago.  While the “tell” style of yesteryear may not got over well with the current “show” method of today, I have to admit I became so involved in the plot that by the last chapter I clutched the book and actually cried.  And I am not a crier when it comes to literature.  Movies, on occasion can induce some sniffling, but rarely can a book get me to sob.

The story is mainly about Amalia; her hopes and dreams of romance are forever changed when she is forced to leave with the rest of her family and the other members of her German community to build a new settlement in Nebraska. Though she appears complacent on the outside, she keeps her inner thoughts and desires to herself.  Aldrich captures this wonderfully:

pp. 9 & 10

But thoughts are acrobats, agile and quite often untrustworthy.  So now, with impish disregard of the command, they hopped about quite easily.  They asked Amalia innocently why the nice young man wanted to know where she lived.  They suggested with subtle art the possibility that he would try to find out.  And then when the gruff person at her side questioned their activities they urged her quickly to answer, “Nein.”

My interest in pioneer started long ago with the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. There is a fascination in reading about how people created homes and towns out of the rough lands of prairie and wilderness, and through all this tremendous effort they had their own personal stories.   For the last five years I have labored on a novel about a family who follows the Oregon trail to turn off and make their claim in Idaho.  Historical novels require plenty of research to make the time period, setting, and characters come alive.  Aldrich’s Spring Came on Forever reminded me how moving pioneer stories can be.   I am also encouraged to someday write something that induces tears.

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