The Flaming Lips of Willa Cather
Originally posted February 17, 2013 on ErinBlogue.
Walking through a bookshop recently, I did a double-take as I passed a modest grouping of spines boasting a familiar author. I’d heard of Willa Cather before, even tried to read one of her books. But that was back in tweenhood, when I was yet too immature to tear myself away from the glow of would-be actresses devouring raw horse rectum or lasting a full minute in a sarcophagus teeming with roaches in order to win a game-show prize. Looking back it’s sad that I chose reality TV over a weathered literary classic like My Ántonia, but what can I say? There’s just no competing with prime-time droll when it comes to winning a child’s esteem. So my little-kid mind did the only thing that seemed right in the face of temptation: I dragged my eyes across the pages of my Cather novel without retention, marked on my homework slip that I’d had a library book open for a full twenty minutes, and then settled in to watch the future of entertainment unravel.
Back at the bookshop, my maturing hand picked up the copy of My Ántonia—three dollars, used—and brought it home. Since my first try with the novel, I’ve loved, learned, and transplanted myself a world away from my roots. It seemed the perfect mindset to recapture this pioneer gem I could have had in youth, this well-penned story to linger in my mind. Love, loss, mobility, and moving on—my story—share the leitmotif of the piece. So it’s almost funny now, having read the book clear through, just how much of its clarity and fierce destiny lay in wait for me to come along in my late twenties having lived a little and at last eager to see.
The narrative follows Jim, a discerning country boy growing up on the Nebraska prairie shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. His story is interwoven with the novel’s namesake, a rugged and vibrant Bohemian immigrant affectionately called Tony. I hadn’t braced myself for the reality of what I’d assumed would be a fanciful and bumpkinesque book. In the first chunk, Cather deals with the trying themes of immigration, poverty, regret, and suicide. As affection builds between Jim and Tony, the story takes on the nuances of growing up and the resolution that all things, good and bad, are bound to rise and wane as the world spins madly forever.
As with any well-told story, the romance element never develops to fruition in time for either Jim or Tony to get a word in edgewise. Before we know it, Jim is off to Lincoln and then Boston, while Tony meets her own fate on the prairie. Without letting slip a spoiler to those who have not read, the story does not wrap up as you might think. Or at least not as I had thought, knowing that the book is considered a romance, and catching on the note of possession in the title. What we get at the end is not the kind of neat wrap-up that satisfies you all the way into a warm bubble bath. The story’s culmination reveals an honesty of living that sends you reminiscing fondly while cursing all your lost opportunities as they pass before your eyes in stark and living color.
Throughout the novel are glimpses, from a variety of perspectives, of human value and its place in the grand drama of progression. On the final page, Jim walks the fields and roads of a youth spent with Ántonia and feels her shadow, nearly forty years distant, egging him on to play.
“The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what little circle man’s experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”
As I scribble my thoughts on My Ántonia, my playlist has circled around twice to “Do You Realize??” by the Flaming Lips. Its fury and simple lyricism make it one of my all-time favorite songs. Along with its opening cadence the second time through I was struck with an a-ha notion that nothing but these lyrics could sum up Cather’s novel more concisely or more completely. Did Tony realize all the beauty radiating from her singular face? Did Jim ever let her know, in time, that he realized that the fast clip of life makes it all the more important to make the good things last? Did either of them realize that all things must pass way and be borne forever to the eternities?
Smoothing over the many dog-ears that work assignments and buzzing dryers have lain on the pages these past few days, I set the finished book aside and marvel once again at all the humanity I snubbed back when I chose Fear Factor over honesty. Some books have nothing to tell us but story, but Cather’s is brimming with a life so universal that its recognition strikes you as lightning even a hundred years later.
Luckily for anyone in my shoes—anyone reading this story in the prime of life—it’s a reassuring marvel that the sun doesn’t really go down. Through it all, it’s just an illusion, caused by our worlds spinning ‘round.