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Monday, September 16, 2019

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is considered the second of the author’s Great Plains Trilogy. However, though it takes place in the American Midwest as did O Pioneers!, the two stories are unconnected. I found this to be great character study. Along the way, Cather adds in a lot of ponderings on the things that make a person an artist. In addition, the novel is filled with musical references ranging from American and Mexican folk music to the operas of Richard Wagner. These references greatly enhanced my reading experience.

This is the story of Thea Kronborg. Thea is born into a Swedish - American family that resides in the fictional town of Moonstone, Colorado. She grows up in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Thea is special. The is smarter than most of her peers. She loves books. She has enormous musical talent. She seems to exude a charisma, even as an adolescent, that draws men to her. These men invest time and effort info promoting Theas’s future, as she slowly emerges as a successful and gifted opera singer. 

Perhaps the most important male supporter of Thea is Dr. Howard Archie. His interest in her strikes one as a little odd. Though never overtly romantic, one gets the sense that there is a subtext of attraction as Thea gets older. Late in the book, Dr. Archie himself thinks back on the relationship, 

He realized now that she had counted for a great deal more to him than he knew at the time. It was a continuous sort of relationship. He was always on the lookout for her as he went about the town, always vaguely expecting her as he sat in his office at night. He had never asked himself then if it was strange that he should find a child of twelve the most interesting and companionable person in Moonstone. It had seemed a pleasant, natural kind of solicitude. He explained it then by the fact that he had no children of his own. But now, as he looked back at those years, the other interests were faded and inanimate. The thought of them was heavy.

Dr. Archie supports Thea in her early years, helps her get set up in Chicago where she goes to study music and eventually finances her journey to Germany to properly hone her skills as an opera singer. There are many others in Thea’s hometown who are drawn to her including Ray Kennedy, an intelligent railroad brakeman who intends to marry Thea when she gets older but who is killed in a train accident. Her charisma and her musical interests lead her to the form bonds with several other adults including members of the Mexican – American community.

While studying music in Chicago Thea meets Fred Ottenberg. Fred is the son of a wealthy parents. Thea and Fred begin to fall in love until Fred is forced to tell Thea that he is actually married to woman that he has come to hate. 

Later Thea travels to Germany to study opera. The narrative then jumps forward ten years when Thea returns to America to be greeted by both Dr. Archie and Fred. Thea is becoming something of a diva and the two men are entranced by her. 

I thought that the prose here, while very good, did not reach the nearly sublime level that they reached in O Pioneers! There may have been a few passages that came close to the earlier work, but only a few. Instead, the strength of this book lies in the fact that it is a superb character study. This book is a classic and successful example of a bildungsroman. 

Thea is complex and nuanced. In some ways her development is a study in talent and the formation of an artist. As mentioned above, she exhibits enormous talent and intelligence when growing up. She is tomboyish as she is not afraid of the outdoor elements or the rougher nature of life. This roughish part of her nature reasserts itself at various points on the plot throughout Thea’s life. 

When she goes to Chicago to study music she exudes confidence, self – reliance as well as enormous drive. To Cather’s credit she has endowed her literary creation with flaws. Thea goes through a period where her detachment, calmness and confidence begins to trend into coldness and arrogance. As it sometimes happens in real life, this period seems to pass naturally. Later when she learns that Fred is married Thea is hurt but not devastated, indicating just how self - reliant that she is.

There is a duality to Theas's character. There is a contrast between the fairly tough girl who grew up on the plains and cosmopolitan woman who is honing her considerable musical talent. At one point, Thea is present at a concert where Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 "From the New World” is played and it reminds her of her youth. Later some of Wagner’s operatic works are performed presaging the life that she in entering. 

Toward the book’s conclusion Thea comments on how her ties to Moonstone has buoyed her as an artist. She tells Dr. Archie, 

Nearly all my dreams, except those about breaking down on the stage or missing trains, are about Moonstone. You tell me the old house has been pulled down, but it stands in my mind, every stick and timber. In my sleep I go all about it, and look in the right drawers and cupboards for everything. I often dream that I'm hunting for my rubbers in that pile of overshoes that was always under the hatrack in the hall. I pick up every overshoe and know whose it is, but I can't find my own. Then the school bell begins to ring and I begin to cry. That's the house I rest in when I'm tired. All the old furniture and the worn spots in the carpet— it rests my mind to go over them.”

I found this to be an excellent book. Thera’s character and her development is at the heart of it all. She is not just complex and interesting but she is unusual. Though I did not find the prose to be as soaring as Cather’s effort in O Pioneers!, the character development makes up for it. Cather’s exploration of artistry and music is also fascinating. This novel is a fine example of American literature.

38 comments:

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, excellent review. I have only read My Antonia but your description of Song of the Lark convines me that that's the next Willa Cather novel I should be reading. I sense similarities between My Antonia and Song of the Lark. Cather's women are strong and though they may leave their home towns in the midwest, they retain all that they've learned there, particularly a reverance for the land and nature. Could Thea have been a stand in for Willa Cather herself, a brilliant artist who left Nebraska for NYC but never got the prairies out of her system.

Rachel said...

I love character studies, and Cather is so good at them!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. I think that this novel is considered to be a bit autobiographical. The dichotomy between the Plains and a Cosmopolitan life seems like something Cather would translate from her own life.

I will be starting My Antonia soon. It will be interesting to compare.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel- This is only my 2nd Cather book. I have heard that My Antonia was a great character study. I will be starting that soon.

mudpuddle said...

interesting post... i wonder if Cather was musical... that she was is indicated by the operatic references; i'll get into reading her work one of these days/years... i hope, because she sounds well worth reading...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle- According to an Internet biography that I have read, Cather was passionate about music and was a reviewer for a time.

Suko said...

This sounds like a brilliant character study. I'd like to read this before too long. Wonderful commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko!

Judy Krueger said...

I love any novels that also are about music. I will read this one. I think that artistic people are often complex characters.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - Some writers seem fascinated by, and very good at depicting artists. This music in this book was a nice touch.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity said...

Great review, Brian. Since I have read O Pioneers! I understand the comparisons and am intrigued to read this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Laurie - I think both are worthy books. I will be moving on to My Antonia soon.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian.

I haven't read this trilogy. The only book I've read is My Antonia and I enjoyed it. I think that the subject matter here would really interest me. Not just the music, but also I like reading about the immigrants that populated our country, as in the midwest.

JacquiWine said...

Great piece, Brian. Your thoughtful review of this reminds me that I really must read O Pioneers! at some point. I loved certain aspects of My Antonia - the central character in particular. The way Cather captured the beauty and brutality of life on the land was very striking.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

As you know I love books with good, strong characters ... all the better if they are female ... Definitely one for my Wanna Read list, this sounds wonderful

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - It seems that the trilogy books are not really connected. I think that you would really get a lot out of the music in this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui - Cather had a way of writing about the Plains.

I will be starting My Antonia soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity - I think that you would get a lot out of this book. I would love to know what you thought about Thea.

Unruly Reader said...

Great review! I really liked My Antonia and have meant to return to Willa Cather's writing -- and this sounds like a good option, especially since it addresses the creative life.

James said...

Thanks for another great review and for reminding me how good Cather is. She is one of my favorite authors. While I've read many of her works and especially revere My Antonia I have not yet read this novel. It must go on my lengthy tbr pile.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Unruly- Fictional books about creative people have long been popular but usually interesting.

I will be starting My Antonia soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I think that you would like this. I will be starting My Antonia soon.

Stefanie said...

I love t his book! When I read it a few years ago I had a constant fear for Thea, that something would go wrong, that she would lose her voice, or there would be a horrible accident. It was such a relief to get the end and have it all come out fine.

JaneGS said...

Thanks for an excellent review of one of my new favorite novels - I agree that Thea is complex, interesting, and unusual. There is not a stock character bone in her body! I found the prose extremely moving--Cather's ability to convey a sense of place and space is profound, and I really loved her exploration of the creative impulse and development of talent.

Sue Bursztynski said...

This sounds like yet another full life story book, set over a long time - I guess if it’s autobiographical that makes sense. Was there a particular theme running through it?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephenie - It really was a very worthy book. It did have a relatively happy ending.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Thea really was a great character. The portrait of the artist here was so superb.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - The most prominent theme that I could pick up was the contrast between the American Plains verses the Cosmopolitan world. The book took us through Thea’s like up until thirty. It ended on the presumption that she had a long time ahead

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I've never read any Willa Cather but have always meant to.

baili said...

I loved this book through your remarkable review dear Brain

i also liked author's other work you shared with us ,beautiful writer indeed and her treatment of of character is something extraordinary
i am glad to know another novel by you

i would have love to read a passage that can reveal her way of thinking and attitude
though i liked one you shared above
thank you so much for exquisite blog and spectacular commentaries :)
blessings!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - I only discovered Cather a few months ago. This is my second book. I like her a lot so far.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - I think that you would like Cather.

thecuecard said...

Hi Brian: does this novel end with Thea at the end of her life or just in middle age? Does she marry? Thea seems quite like Cather. I've only completed O Pioneers & My Antonia (which I recall liking a lot but it's been a long time ago since I read it). I'd like to read The Death Comes for the Archbishop, which might be my next of Cather's.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The main story ends when Thea is only thirty years old but we are then told that in the next few years that Thea was very successful.

I have just started My Antonia. I have heard that Death Comes for the Archbishop was excellent.

Paula Vince said...

It does sound reminiscent of O Pioneers, the only Cather novel I've read so far. I do enjoy a good bildungsroman and strong female lead, so on the strength of that, I'll add this one to my list too. Thanks for the great review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Paula- As compared to O Pioneers! this book looked at a bigger world. Geographically it covered all of the United States. It also covered a more cosmopolitan world that contained a lot more types of people.

the bookworm said...

Hi Brian, this one sounds good and Thea sounds like an interesting character, especially that she goes onto become an opera singer. I like that there are two sides to her character as you mention, the tomboy and then the more polished woman.
Fantastic post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Thea is really a superbly crafted character. Such creations can make for a great book.