For some reason I don’t read short stories very often. I’m not sure why, I have nothing against them. I think of essays as the nonfiction equivalent of short stories and I love reading essays. So I am always baffled why I don’t feel the same about stories. Until I read Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden and Selected Stories, I had not read a story collection in well over a year. First published in 1905, this is Cather’s second book and her first of fiction. Her first book was poetry published in 1903.
The first story, “On the Divide” made me really worried I was going to hate the book. Sure, it had great descriptions of the landscape but the story itself is pretty caveman: the hard drinking Canute Canuteson decides he is tired of Lena Yensen’s flirtatious ways so he is going to marry her. It doesn’t matter that Lena doesn’t want him. Canute shows up at her family’s farm in the middle of a snow storm and drags her away to his house. Then he goes to the minister’s and forces him out into the blizzard to marry him and Lena. And somehow, in the end, Lena is pleased with the outcome even though she won’t admit to it.
Ugh! This made me want to barf.
But the story that followed this unfortunate beginning ended up being one of my favorites. Eric Hermannson was a free spirit, young and strong and gifted on the fiddle/violin. But his mother and others in town had been drawn in by the Free Gospellers and their leader, Asa Skinner. The preacher’s beliefs are strait-laced and buttoned up, no music, no dancing, no mirth; God was vengeful and the only way to being saved was strict obedience to His will. Skinner has his eye on Eric. Converting him would be a triumph. Somehow he manages it. But as soon as Eric gives up his violin he gives up his soul and his spirit dies. He trudges on through his now unhappy life until he is reawakened by a young woman staying with relatives on her way through to somewhere else.
Margaret Elliot is on her last fling as a free woman. When she returns to the city in the east, she will be married to a man she doesn’t exactly love and she is determined to break through the walls Eric has built around himself. There is going to be a big dance and she taunts Eric into making an appearance. And you know from the start Eric is doomed:
Something seemed struggling for freedom in them tonight, something of the joyous childhood of the nations which exile had not killed. The girls were all boisterous with delight. Pleasure came to them but rarely, and when it came, they caught at it wildly and crushed its fluttering wings in their strong brown fingers. They had a hard life enough, most of them. Torrid summers and freezing winters, labour and drudgery and ignorance, were the portion of their girlhood; a short wooing, a hasty, loveless marriage, unlimited maternity, thankless sons, premature age and ugliness, were the dower of their womanhood. But what matter? Tonight there was hot liquor in the glass and hot blood in the heart; tonight they danced.
But of course the reader does not see Eric as doomed. We see him as being saved even though the preacher is quick to promise him sulfur and brimstone.
And it turns out the first story is an anomaly, the one that is not like the others. “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” sets the stage for all that follows. Story after story of a hard life on the plains being saved by music. Some of the characters are allowed to escape to the city — Denver Chicago or New York — and one is allowed to escape to Europe and the opera. But not all the stories are about artists or musicians and while some of them are happy, a good many are tinged with sorrow and a few are downright tragic.
The stories weren’t amazing, not like reading Song of the Lark or My Antonia, but they are good, competent stories with moments of beauty in which is glimpsed the writer that Cather becomes. And since I like Cather very much, it was a pleasure to discover her young voice and the seeds of the themes and motifs that play out in her later fiction.