Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2018

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather

I’d never heard of Willa Cather until Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed some of her work, and I read a couple of her stories digitally via Library of America as she suggested.  So when I spied The Song of the Lark at the library, I whisked it off home with me, and have just romped through it in 24 hours.  Sometimes it’s a real pleasure to read an undemanding old-fashioned novel and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way.  There’s plenty to think about in The Song of the Lark and the writing is beautiful but there are no complex plot structures to sort out and everything is tidily chronological.  Perfect for leisurely reading in the lazy aftermath of Christmas!

Set near the turn of the 20th century, The Song of the Lark tells the story of Thea Kronborg and her quest to transcend humble beginnings in small town (fictional) Moonstone in Colorado to become a singer of opera.   This coming-of-age story is said to be semi-autobiographical because it traces a life not unlike Cather’s own, but its themes of ambition and alienation are perhaps not unusual to anyone in pursuit of life as an artist of any kind.  Thea begins the story as a thoroughly likeable child, a bit of a loner in a large family, but good-hearted, generous, and comfortable with people different to herself.  But as opportunities come her way and her ambition grows, she becomes judgemental and condescending to others if they fail to meet her standards.  Scornful of other singers around her, she doesn’t even like her New York audiences, who prefer popular artistes of mediocre talent because unlike their sophisticated European counterparts, they don’t recognise great talent when they hear it.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The weakness in this novel is that Thea is let off the romantic hook by her author.  In childhood Thea earns the devoted affection of the local doctor, only about ten years older than her, and burdened by a disagreeable wife.  This relationship is sustained into adulthood so a May-September love affair is dangled before the reader.  Thea also has the love of the wealthy Fred Ottenberg, but he turns out to be married too, estranged from his wife but unable to divorce her.  Thea is thus spared the dilemma of any young woman wanting to pursue a career in that era.  Marriage before birth control inevitably meant children and as we see from events in the novel, opportunities for roles in the world of opera occur at the most inconvenient times.  Since she can’t marry either of the men she loves Thea is free to pursue her dreams, though there are still sacrifices to be made: she has to choose between coming home to visit her dying mother and her first big break in Dresden.  The novel makes it very clear that there is a personal cost to single-minded ambition and that it can alienate the artist not just from people who don’t share the same ideas and standards, but also from those who have helped and supported her along the way.

Cather is justly famous for her lyrical descriptions of America in this pivotal era.  The settings range from the railway town of Moonstone, to cities familiar from film and TV: Denver, Chicago and New York.  But there are also scenes at a ranch in Arizona which are fascinating for those of us who have never been there.  There are a couple of unsettling moments when American Indians are written off as a vanished people whose artefacts can be looted: these scenes put me in mind of some early Australian writing which assumed that Aborigines were a dying race if not extinct already.  And while racism is acknowledged by the way Thea is criticised for associating with Mexicans in her home town, (unless I missed them) there seemed to be no African-American characters in the novel at all, which struck me as a bit odd.

These quibbles aside, The Song of the Lark is entertaining reading which has convinced me that I should read the others in the trilogy, O! Pioneers, and My Antonia.

Author: Willa Cather
Title: The Song of the Lark
Publisher: Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2013, 539 pages, first published 1915.
ISBN: 9780803245723
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. I bought a nice VMC edition of My Antonia recently, so that will be my first WC novel at some point fairly soon, I hope. If I get on well I might well explore others like this one…Meanwhile, a very happy new year, Lisa, and a fulfilling, book-filled 2019

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  2. I have been familiar with her for so many years but have never read her. Don’t know if 2019 will change that or not. I really need to focus on my TBR books I own.

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  3. What a treat lies ahead for you Lisa. The other two books in the trilogy should bring much pleasure. There’s a lot to be said for good old fashioned story telling such as Cather’s.
    Based on your recommendation I just started ‘Gwen’ this morning – looks exceptionally good and makes a great start to the new year. Thank you.
    And I have a recommendation for you. Recently I read Dinner with the Dissidents by John Tesarsch, a Melbourne barrister who also plays the cello. Knowing your love of all things Russian I think you’d enjoy it. It begins around 1970 in Moscow. The Kremlin persuades a young writer to infiltrate Solzhenitsen’s social circle which includes Rostropovich, Shostakovich and a lovely young cellist, Klara. The young writer is to find out what the secretive Solzhenitsen is working on. In the process he falls in love with Klara and the story is laced through with much discussion about music, writing and politics in Canberra. Happy reading for the year ahead.

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    • Hello, and thanks for letting me know that you are enjoying Gwen… it’s music to a blogger’s ears to know that a review has hit home.
      You will be pleased to hear that I have The Dissidents on my TBR, and also The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman. I bought them both when they came out, (because I liked The Philanthropist) but failed to get to either of them in a timely way.
      It’s daft really, I buy the authors whose work I really love, and then I get distracted by the ones that publishers send me. If I were going to make any NY resolutions, it would be to overcome this bad habit.

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  4. It’s really interesting to visit older novels and note the changes in accepted morals and views.
    I know what you mean as well about uncomplicated, tidy reading. It’s become refreshing in this day of convoluted plots and overly complicated characters.

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    • Well, there’s a place for both I think. I’ve just started reading House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and it’s certainly a contrast to the Cather. But I love it. There’s a lot of very interesting historical fiction with a purpose coming out of Africa. (Tshuma is from Zimbabwe).

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      • I haven’t read much African fiction. I’ll look forward to your review.

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        • What I find when I get chatting to migrants or refugees here in Melbourne, is that they tend to be a bit surprised if something I say indicates that I know a little about where they come from. It might just be that I’ve heard of Bulawayo or that I know about the elections in Nigeria or whatever, and most of it comes from the novels I read, not the sensationalist or hard luck stories in the media. But my Indian cleaner was delighted when he came into my library and I pointed out a couple of famous authors from India who’d written about partition because that had affected his grandparents. I know what it’s like to feel like a fish out of water and that nobody knows anything about places or experiences that mean a lot to me. Even if they are well-meaning and kind and try to take an interest, one gets sick of explaining. And what that teaches is that we should shut up and not tell our stories, and that’s not a good thing.

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          • Precisely. I love how accessible translations have become. I want to read more, but with variety in terms of where they originated as well as the subject and genre.

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  5. I am a big Willa Cather fan. You have some wonderful reading ahead of you if you fancy reading more of her work. My personal favourites, My Antonia, Lucy Gayheart, A Lost Lady and O! Pioneers.

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    • I think my next one should be O! Pioneers because I’ve never read anything about C19th Nordic migration to America and it interests me:)

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  6. I only read to Beware Spoilers because I haven’t read The song of the lark or O! Pioneers, though I’ve read My Antonia twice. I’d read it again too. I’ve read at least two other Cather novels, and a few short stories, and really like her spare style for the spare lives she tells.

    Thanks for the link. I’m glad you decided to give her a try.

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  7. I own a lot of Cather but have read very little of it, so I’ve skimmed your review for now! My BFF adores her, and that I’ve read of her work I’ve loved too.

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  8. I have run into the name Willa Cather a few times but never read her. I would be interested to compare her with rural Australians of the same vintage. For a start she is better educated, with a BA from uni of Nebraska in 1894 (Australia and British units accepted women for the first time in 1881).

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    • This isn’t a criticism of Cather but she seems to me to have less fire in her belly than, say, Catherine Helen Spence. Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865), for example, was a powerful argument for women’s right to work and education. The Song of the Lark is about one exceptional woman’s struggle to transcend a small town future but IMHO it’s not arguing for better opportunities for women in general.

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      • You are probably right Lisa. I don’t think that was Cather’s intention. I feel that while social conditions – particularly factors like immigration – provide the backdrop for her characters, her interest is more psychological/interior than social justice?

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        • Yes, I would say so, more about individual self-fulfilment. And there’s a rather unpleasant trace of contempt for the mediocre characters and anyone who stands in Thea’s way.

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  9. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.

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  10. This book and author has been on my radar a while too, perfect for the festive season indeed!

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    • I should say that I have been reading a couple of rather sombre NF books (just the way they came in on reserve at the library) so relief from that was mandatory:)

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  11. I wish I could elucidate a book’s weaknesses as easily as you do, but I get caught up in the story. I found no weaknesses in Song of the Lark.

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    • Well, any weaknesses haven’t put me off. I’ve just ordered O Pioneers from the Readings Bargain table:)

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