So it turns out, finally, that much of the trip one takes to Catherland, to south-central Nebraska, the place where Willa Cather grew up, tends to retrace the life of one of her own central characters, Antonia Shimerda, from the wonderful old prairie hymn My Antonia.
I've taken students out there a half-dozen times, but never before did I so greatly realize that the pilgrimage to the wide and wild red prairies Cather loved is as much about Antonia as it is about Cather, who left Red Cloud, NE when she went off to college and never really returned. It's the tireless, heroic Antonia, the prairie-earth mother, who stays, who bears eleventy-seven children, who works the land with her husband, and, who, finally, is buried there, not all that far away from the desolate place she and her immigrant Czech family first put down tenuous American some roots.
If you take the drive out into the country, to the Divide, as Cather herself called it, you'll see where the Cathers, fresh out of the American South, determined to live on this endless, untamed, and often unforgiving country. It's a chunk of rolling prairie that had just been bailed when we ambled up on Saturday, a piece of ground so incredibly featureless that if it weren't for a half-buried sign and my memory of where it sits exactly, we could well have taken that dirt road right on past it and never noticed it was there.
Of course, Cather lived there only a year or so before her father moved to town, having realized he wasn't the farmer he thought he could be when he grabbed all that cheap land. But the Pavelkas stayed, even though Anna's own immigrant father ended his American homestead experience vastly more tragically than Mr. Cather, when Pavelka shot himself in the barn on the dirt-poor homestead where he lived with his newly-arrived family.
At just thirteen years old, Anna Sadilek left the country to go to town and work for a well-to-do family. The Cather tour takes you into that fancy old 19th century house just a block west of the Cather's town place. There, behind the kitchen, in a back room so small you can barely turn around, sits a bed where Anna slept, a working girl from the country, a child in the big city of Red Cloud, population 1500.
There's more. On a dirt road just outside of town, you can still stop at the grave of the man who got her pregnant when she shouldn't have been, before she was married, a pregnancy that meant she had to return, for a time, to her mother's place in the country.
And there's an end. Just up the road from where she and her husband are both buried, in nearby Bladen, Nebraska, you can still walk around the house where the two of them put down their own solid roots in the tough Nebraska earth. Out back of the house, you can still swing open the tall white doors of the cellar made famous in the final words of the novel, the womb-like dugout from which all those hearty farm kids emerge.
Really, a trip to Catherland, to Red Cloud, Nebraska, is as much about Anna Sadilek Pavelka as it is about the somewhat mysterious, Pulitizer Prize winning Willa Cather, Red Cloud's most famous citizen. But that's okay.
It's said that, once upon a time, Sarah Orne Jewett told Cather--they were close friends--that Cather ought to abandon the idea that she had to sound like Henry James and instead just write the stories she'd learned as a child on the Divide, on the broad land where she'd been blessed to grow up. That advice led her to consider the life of her old friend from the country, Anna Sadelik Pavelka, who became My Antonia.
That great novel is a love song to the Plains, to the women who lived there, who worked in the quiet conviction that life, no matter where it was you happened to be set down, was there to be lived. My Antonia is a gift from a wonderful writer who left the country and never married, to a blessed farm wife who stayed and did. It's a novel full of love for a place and a person, a heroic woman in red prairie grass.
Somehow, I think, if Cather herself knew that our trip out to Red Cloud was as much about Anna Pavelka as it was about Willa Cather, she wouldn't mind at all.
We were there Saturday, a bunch of us, two profs and a nine students. I won't speak for anyone else, but I came home blessed.