Some years ago, in the relatively early days of this blog, I had a splurge of reading Willa Cather, and reviewed three of her novels: A Lost Lady, O Pioneers, and My Antonia. I absolutely loved them all, and was determined to explore her work further - but you know how it is, other things intervened and I never did get around to it. She came back on the radar recently when someone lent me a copy of The Song of the Lark to take on my travels.
The novel starts in a small town in rural Colorado. Here live a family of Swedish immigrants, the Kronbergs. The second youngest of the seven children is Thea, who is eight when the novel begins. This will be the story of her life - a bildungsroman, if you like, but one with important things to say.
Thea is different. She doesn't know exactly how or in what way, but from a very young age she has been filled with a feeling of unnameable desire for something she cannot begin to identify. Here she is in her teens:
Many a night that summer she left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window — or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation.
Meanwhile, she shows a talent for the piano, and starts to give lessons. Most of her family don't understand her, though her strong, calm mother is supportive. Luckily she has two friends, Dr Archie and Ray, the railman. Both are many years older, but they really appreciate her for what she is. Ray, indeed, hopes she will marry him when she is older.
Eventually a tragedy fortuitously leaves her with enough money to spend a winter in Chicago, studying the piano. When she gets there, though, it turns out that her real talent is for singing and eventually she will become a celebrated opera singer.
So much for the plot, and a lot more happens than I've told you about here. It's told beautifully, and often obliquely, with events taking place of which we only discover the details later, or not at all. Thea works hard, gets worn out, learns and develops. She's not soft and loveable - she's too driven to be those things - but those men who appreciate her really see who she is and are overwhelmed by her power and talent. Essentially, though, she is an artist, and everything else has to be secondary:
Your work becomes your personal life. You are not much good until it does. It’s like being woven into a big web. You can’t pull away, because all your little tendrils are woven into the picture. It takes you up, and uses you, and spins you out; and that is your life. Not much else can happen to you.
Cather is a writer of great subtlety and perceptiveness, and I wish I knew how to convey to you what a wonderful novel this is. It does so many things. It conveys the beauty and strangeness of the Colorado landscapes in Cather's beautiful prose. It gives a fascinating glimpse of the lives of those courageous pioneers who moved to America at the end of the nineteenth century (it forms a trilogy with O Pioneers and My Antonia). It deals in a really interesting way with social and racial divides - Thea is castigated by the 'respectable' inhabitants of the town for her friendship with Mexican Jonny and his wife, who live in the wrong part of town. Above all, perhaps, it deals with the importance of art, and on the strangeness of an artistic gift being unsought, but just as it were bestowed - from where, or by what, it's up to us to decide.