The Great Plains Trilogy – Willa Cather
Willa Cather was the 1922 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her breakthrough in literature were the three novels featured here in this edition, the so-called “Great Plains Trilogy”. All three novels stage in Nebraska and the surrounding Great Plains territory and deal with the life there, family challenges and romance. Included are:
The Song of the Lark
The Great Plains Trilogy.
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Plot summary of the titles in The Great Plains Trilogy (from Wikipedia):
- O Pioneers!
Part I – The Wild Land]
On a windy January day in Hanover, Nebraska, Alexandra Bergson is with her five-year-old brother Emil, whose little kitten has climbed a telegraph pole and is afraid to come down. Alexandra asks her neighbor and friend Carl Linstrum to retrieve the kitten. Later, Alexandra finds Emil in the general store with Marie Tovesky. They are playing with the kitten. Marie lives in Omaha and is visiting her uncle Joe Tovesky.
Alexandra’s father is dying, and it is his wish that she run the farm after he is gone. Alexandra and her brothers Oscar and Lou later visit Ivar, known as Crazy Ivar because of his unorthodox views. For instance, he sleeps in a hammock, believes in killing no living thing and goes barefoot summer and winter. But he is known for healing sick animals. Alexandra is concerned about their hogs as the hogs of many of their neighbors are dying. Crazy Ivar advises her to keep their hogs clean rather than letting them live in filth and to give them fresh, clean water and good food. This simply confirms Oscar’s and Lou’s opinion that Ivar deserves the name Crazy Ivar. Alexandra, however, starts making plans for where she will relocate the hogs.
After years of crop failure, many of the Bergson’s neighbors are selling out, even if it means taking a loss. Then they learn the Linstrums have also decided to leave. Oscar and Lou want to leave too, but neither their mother nor Alexandra will. After visiting villages downwards to see how they are getting on, Alexandra talks her brothers into mortgaging the farm to buy more land, in hopes of ending up as rich landowners.
Part II – Neighboring Fields
Sixteen years later, the farms are now prosperous. Alexandra and her brothers have divided up their inheritance, and Emil has just returned from college. The Linstrum farm has failed, and Marie, now married to Frank Shabata, has bought it. That same day, the Bergsons are surprised by a visit from Carl Linstrum, whom they have not seen for thirteen years. Having failed at a job in Chicago, he is on his way to Alaska, but decides to stay with Alexandra for a while. Carl notices the growing flirtatious relationship between Emil and Marie. Lou and Oscar suspect that Carl wants to marry Alexandra, and are resentful at the idea that Carl might try to marry into a farm, while they had to work hard for theirs. This causes problems between Alexandra and her brothers, and they stop speaking to each other. Carl, recognizing a problem, decides to leave for Alaska. At the same time, Emil announces he is leaving to travel through Mexico. Alexandra is left alone.
Part III – Winter Memories
Alexandra spends the winter alone, except for occasional visits from Marie, whom she visits with Mrs. Lee, Lou’s mother-in-law. She also has an increased number of the mysterious dreams she has had since girlhood. These dreams are about a strong, god-like male figure who carries her over the fields.
Part IV – The White Mulberry Tree
Emil returns from Mexico City. His best friend, Amédée, is now married with a young son. At a fair at the French church, Emil and Marie kiss for the first time. They later confess their illicit love, and Emil determines to leave for law school in Michigan. Before he leaves, Amédée dies from a ruptured appendix, and as a result both Emil and Marie realize what they value most. Before leaving for Michigan, Emil stops by Marie’s farm to say one last goodbye, and they fall into a passionate embrace beneath the white mulberry tree. They stay there for several hours, until Marie’s husband, Frank, finds them and shoots them in a drunken rage. He flees to Omaha, where he later turns himself in for the crime. Ivar discovers Emil’s abandoned horse, leading him to search for the boy and discover the bodies.
Part V – Alexandra
After Emil’s death Alexandra is distraught, in shock, and slightly out of it. She goes off in a rainstorm. Ivar goes looking for her and brings her back home, where she sleeps fitfully and dreams about death. She then decides to visit Frank in Lincoln where he is incarcerated. While in town she walks by Emil’s university campus, comes upon a polite young man who reminds her of Emil, and feels better. The next day she talks to Frank in prison. He is bedraggled and can barely speak properly, and she promises to do what she can to see him released; she bears no ill will toward him. She then receives a telegram from Carl, telling her that he is back. They decide to marry, unconcerned with the approval of her brothers.
2. The Song of the Lark
Part I: Friends of Childhood
In Moonstone, Colorado, Doctor Archie helps Mrs. Kronborg give birth to her son, Thor. He takes care of their daughter, Thea, who is sick with pneumonia. The next year, she goes to the Kohlers for piano lessons with Wunsch, and practices daily for two hours or four hours, depending if school is in session or not. The doctor goes to Spanish Johnny who is sick. Later, Ray Kennedy goes out to the countryside with Johnny, his wife, Thea, Axel, and Gunner. Although she is only twelve and he is thirty, he dreams of marrying her when she is old enough. They tell stories of striking it rich in silver mines in the west.
Before Christmas, Thea plays the piano at a concert, but the town paper praises her rival Lily which upsets Thea, as she wanted to sing rather than perform an instrumental piece. Tillie turns down the local drama club’s notion to have Thea play a part in The Drummer Boy of Shiloh, knowing that acting is not her niece’s talent. After Christmas, Wunsch tells Thea about a Spanish opera singer who could sing an alto part of Christoph Willibald Gluck. She sings for him. He says she needs to learn German for many of the good songs. Wunsch gets so drunk that he behaves badly and hurts himself. Ten days later, all of his students discontinue their lessons with him, and he leaves the town. Shortly after, Thea drops out of school and takes up his students; at fifteen she begins to work full-time.
Thea and her mother enjoy a trip to Denver on Ray’s freight train, riding in the caboose. They stop for lunch with the station agent at a town along the way. That fall, Mr. Kronborg insists that Thea help at the Wednesday prayer meeting by playing the organ and leading the hymns, and she does. At fifteen, religion perplexes Thea, as typhoid kills her schoolmates and a local tramp, source of the infection, is made to leave town; she wonders if the Bible tells people to help him instead. Dr. Archie tells her that people have to look after themselves. On the way from Moonstone to Saxony, Ray’s train has an accident and the next day he bids an emotional goodbye to Thea before he dies. After the funeral, Dr. Archie informs Mr. Kronborg that Ray has bequeathed six hundred dollars to Thea for her to go to Chicago and study music there. Her father agrees to let her go despite her only being seventeen.
Part II: The Song of the Lark
In Chicago, Thea settles close to the parish of a Swedish Reformed Church with two German women; she sings in the choir and in funerals for a stipend, and takes piano lessons with Mr. Harsanyi. When Mr. Harsanyi learns Thea sings in a church choir, he asks her to sing. He is very impressed by her voice. Later, he meets with the conductor of the Chicago Orchestra and asks him who is the best voice teacher in the area; it is Madison Bowers. He then parts with Thea, explaining that her voice is her true artistic gift, not her playing. After several weeks of singing lessons, she takes a train back to Moonstone for her summer vacation. She has grown. She goes to a Mexican ball with Spanish Johnny and sings for them, feeling the pleasure of the audience for the first time. Back in her house, Anna reproaches her for singing for them and not their father’s church. She returns to Chicago in fall.
Part III: Stupid Faces
In Chicago, Thea moves from one home to another. She takes daily singing lessons, spending the afternoons as accompanist for Bowers more accomplished students. She grows tired of them, not all people like the warm and intelligent Harsanyis. Fred Ottenburg shows up for lessons, a man who is educated, lively and closer to her age than all her male teachers. He introduces her to the Nathanmeyers, a family who loves operatic music and her style of singing. They invite her to sing at their musical evenings, helping her with proper dress. Thea catches an infection and does not fully recover; she needs a break in her familiar desert setting but will not return to her family until she has accomplished something. Fred suggests that she spend the summer on a ranch in Arizona with some of cliff homes of the ancient peoples that Thea has longed to see.
Part IV: The Ancient People
Thea gets off the train at Flagstaff, Arizona, seeing the San Francisco Peaks to reach the Bitmer home. She recoups her health, with days in the canyon, resting in one of the ancient cliff dwellings, while sharing the meals of Mr. and Mrs. Bitmer. She comes to know herself better in the moments of isolation. Ottenburg joins her in July. After much direct conversation, they kiss. They take refuge from a severe storm, and then make a daring trek back to the ranch in the dark, met by Bitmer with a lantern. They talk of what is next; Thea thinks she is in love and considers marrying him. Fred suggests a visit to Mexico City, before getting her to Germany, where he feels she belongs, for her singing. Ottenburg does not tell her he married eight years earlier, though he and his wife have been estranged for most of those years, keeping up appearances.
Part V: Doctor Archie’s Venture
In Denver, Dr. Archie receives a telegram from Thea summoning him to New York City and asking him to lend her money so that she can study singing in Germany. Fred told Thea about his marriage in Mexico City, and Thea accepts it, but makes it clear the limits his first marriage imposes on them. She tells Archie about this. In New York she tells Fred that she will leave and will not accept his financial help. Archie goes to dinner with Ottenburg and Thea. The next day, Fred leaves to tend his dying mother. Thea ponders the risks of her ambition, realizes she is young, just 20, and heads to Germany.
Part VI: Ten Years Later
Ten years after Thea leaves for Germany, Dr. Archie lives in Denver after his mining investments succeed and his wife has died. His life is better. He was involved in politics but is now tired of it. He wants to go to New York City, as does Fred, where Thea is performing. He has not seen her in ten years. Four years after she left for Germany, Thea’s father died of disease and Mrs. Kronborg began to fail without him. Thea ached to go home to her mother, but opportunity opened in the opera company in Dresden for her before she can go home. Dr. Archie tries to keep Mrs. Kronborg’s spirits up, but she dies. Thea has paid back the loan to Dr. Archie already.
In New York City, Thea performs at the Metropolitan Opera House. Dr. Archie and Fred are there to attend her performance. The three are good friends. Fred is still tied to his wife, who went mad and lives in an asylum these seven years; but he pines to raise a son. Thea is asked to replace an ill singer at the last minute, and she performs very well. Thea is then announced to sing the entire role of Sieglinde, in the program. This role is well-suited to her voice. Besides Archie and Fred, two other people from her past are in the audience — Harsanyi, her teacher from Chicago, and Spanish Johnny, the Mexican mandolin player from Moonstone, who all deeply enjoy her performance, as does the entire audience. In the epilog, Tillie Kronborg is in Moonstone, enjoying her niece’s successes in the opera. She recalls hearing the famous Kronborg when the opera travelled to Kansas City, and she is happy.
3. My Antonia
Orphaned Jim Burden rides the trains from Virginia to Black Hawk, Nebraska, where he will live with his paternal grandparents. Jake, a farmhand from Virginia, rides with the 10-year-old boy. On the same train, headed to the same destination, is the Shimerda family from Bohemia. Jim lives with his grandparents in the home they have built, helping as he can with chores to ease the burden on the others. The home has the dining room and kitchen downstairs, like a basement, with small windows at the top of the walls, an arrangement quite different from Jim’s home in Virginia. The sleeping quarters and parlor are at ground level. The Shimerda family paid for a homestead which proves to have no home on it, just a cave in the earth, and not much of the land broken for cultivation. The two families are nearest neighbors to each other in a sparsely settled land. Ántonia, the elder daughter in the Shimerda family, is a few years older than young Jim. The two are friends from the start, helped by Mrs. Shimerda asking that Jim teach both her daughters to read English. Ántonia helps Mrs. Burden in her kitchen when she visits, learning more about cooking and housekeeping. The first year is extremely difficult for the Shimerda family, without a proper house in the winter. Mr. Shimerda comes to thank the Burdens for the Christmas gifts given to them, and has a peaceful day with them, sharing a meal and the parts of a Christian tradition that Protestant Mr. Burden and Catholic Mr. Shimerda respect. He did not want to move from Bohemia, where he had a skilled trade, a home and friends with whom he could play his violin. His wife is sure life will be better for her children in America.
The pressures of the new life are too much for Mr. Shimerda, who kills himself before the winter is finished. The nearest Catholic priest is too far away for last rites. He is buried without formal rites at the corner marker of their homestead, a place that is left alone when the territory is later marked out with section lines and roads. Ántonia stops her lessons and begins to work the land with her older brother. The wood piled up to build their log cabin is made into a house. Jim continues to have adventures with Ántonia when they can, discovering nature around them, alive with color in summer and almost monotone in winter. She is a girl full of life. Deep memories are set in both of them from the adventures they share, including the time Jim killed a long rattlesnake with a shovel they were fetching for Ambrosch, her older brother.
A few years after Jim arrives, his grandparents move to the edge of town, buying a house while renting their farm. Their neighbors, the Harlings, have a housekeeper to help with meals and care of the children. When they need a new housekeeper, Mrs. Burden connects Ántonia with Mrs. Harling, who hires her for good wages. Becoming a town girl is a success, as Ántonia is popular with the children, and learns more about running a household, letting her brother handle the heavy farm chores. She stays in town for a few years, having her worst experience with Mr. and Mrs. Cutter. The couple goes out of town while she is their housekeeper, after Mr. Cutter said something that made Ántonia uncomfortable to stay alone in the house as requested. Jim stays there in her place, to be surprised by Mr. Cutter coming to take advantage of who he thinks will be Ántonia alone and defenseless. Instead, Jim punches him, until he realizes it is the owner of the house.
Jim does well in school, the valedictorian of his high school class. He attends the new state university in Lincoln, where his mind is opened to a new intellectual life. In his second year, he finds one of the immigrant farm girls, Lena, is in Lincoln, too, with a successful dressmaking business. He takes her to plays, which they both enjoy. His teacher realizes that Jim is so distracted from his studies, that he suggests Jim come with him to finish his studies at Harvard in Boston. He does, where he then studies the law. He becomes an attorney for one of the western railroads. He keeps in touch with Ántonia, whose life takes a hard turn when the man she loves proposes marriage, but deceives her and leaves her with child. She moves back in with her mother. Years later, Jim visits Ántonia, meeting Anton Cuzak, her husband and father of ten more children, on their farm in Nebraska. He visits with them, getting to know her sons especially. They know all about him, as he features in the stories of their mother’s childhood. She is happy with her brood and all the work of a farm wife. Jim makes plans to take her sons on a hunting trip next year.
(The text of the last section was taken from a Wikipedia entry and is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)
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