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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Although Melissa Homestead spends most of the introduction giving reasons why we shouldn’t bother with it, I nevertheless enjoyed this book. Published in 1915, it traces the life of a Swedish-American girl raised in the western United States. Thea dreams of becoming an artist. Although trained as a pianist she discovers later that her true instrument is her voice, and it is as a singer that she discovers herself and a deeper perspective of the meaning of art.

This extract is taken from one of the earlier chapters, when she is still fifteen years old and being ‘brought along’ by one of her neighbours, Ray Kennedy:

The pleasantest experience Thea had that summer was a trip that she and her mother made to Denver in Ray Kennedy’s caboose. Mrs Kronborg had been looking forward to this rare excursion for a long while, but as Ray never knew at what hour his freight would leave Moonstone, it was difficult to arrange. The call-boy was as likely to summon him to start on his run at twelve o’clock midnight as at twelve o’clock noon. The first week in June started out with all the scheduled trains running on time, and a light freight business. Tuesday evening Ray, after consulting with the dispatcher, stopped at the Kronborgs’ front gate to tell Mrs Kronborg – who was helping Tillie water the flowers – that if she and Thea could be at the depot at eight o’clock the next morning, he thought he could promise them a pleasant ride and get them into Denver before nine o’clock in the evening. Mrs Kronborg told him cheerfully, across the fence, that she would ‘take him up on it,’ and Ray hurried back to the yards to scrub out his car.

The one complaint Ray’s brakemen had to make of him was that he was too fussy about his caboose. His former brakeman had asked to be transferred because, he said, ‘Kennedy was as fussy about his car as an old maid about her bird-cage.’ Joe Giddy, who was braking with Ray now, called him ‘the bride,’ because he kept the caboose and bunks so clean.

It was properly the brakeman’s business to keep the car clean, but when Ray got back to the depot, Giddy was nowhere to be found. Muttering that all his brakemen seemed to consider him ‘easy,’ Ray went down to his car alone. He built a fire in the stove and put water on to heat while he got into his overalls and jumper. Then he set to work with a scrubbing-brush and plenty of soap and ‘cleaner.’ He scrubbed the floor and seats, blackened the stove, put clean sheets on the bunks, and then began to demolish Giddy’s picture gallery. Ray found that his brakemen were likely to have what he termed ‘a taste for the nude in art,’ and Giddy was no exception. Ray took down half a dozen girls in tights and ballet skirts – premiums for cigarette coupons – and some racy calendars advertising saloons and sporting clubs, which had cost Giddy both time and trouble; he even removed Giddy’s particular pet, a naked girl lying on a couch with her knee carelessly poised in the air. Underneath the picture was printed the title, ‘The Odalisque.’ Giddy was under the happy delusion that this title meant something wicked – there was a wicked look about the consonants – but Ray, of course, had looked it up, and Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady. If ‘odalisque’ had been what Ray called an objectionable word, he would have thrown the picture out in the first place. Ray even took down a picture of Mrs Langtry in evening dress, because it was entitled the ‘Jersey Lily,’ and because there was a small head of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, in one corner. Albert Edward’s conduct was a popular subject of discussion among railroad men in those days, and as Ray pulled the tacks out of this lithograph he felt more indignant with the English than ever. He deposited all these pictures under the mattress of Giddy’s bunk, and stood admiring his clean car in the lamplight; the walls now exhibited only a wheatfield, advertising agricultural implements, a map of Colorado, and some pictures of race-horses and hunting dogs. At this moment Giddy, freshly shaved and shampooed, his shirt shining with the highest polish known to Chinese laundrymen, his straw hat tipped over his right eye, thrust his head in at the door.

‘What in hell -,’ he brought out furiously. His good humoured, sunburned face seemed fairly to swell with amazement and anger.

‘That’s all right, Giddy,’ Ray called in a conciliatory tone. ‘Nothing injured. I’ll put ’em all up again as I found ’em. Going to take some ladies down in the car tomorrow.’

Giddy scowled. He did not dispute the propriety of Ray’s measures, if there were to be ladies on board, but he felt injured. ‘I suppose you’ll expect me to behave like a Y.M.C.A. secretary,’ he growled. ‘I can’t do my work and serve tea at the same time.’

‘No need to have a tea-party,’ said Ray with determined cheerfulness. ‘Mrs Kronborg will bring the lunch, and it will be a darned good one.’

Giddy lounged against the car, holding his cigar between two thick fingers. ‘Then I guess she’ll get it,’ he observed knowingly. ‘I don’t think your musical friend is much on the grub-box. Has to keep her hands white to tickle the ivories.’ Giddy had nothing against Thea, but he felt cantankerous and wanted to get a rise out of Kennedy.

‘Every man to his own job,’ Ray replied agreeably, pulling his white shirt on over his head.
Giddy emitted smoke distainfully. ‘I suppose so. The man that gets her will have to wear an apron and bake the pancakes. Well, some men like to mess about the kitchen.’ He paused, but Ray was intent on getting into his clothes as quickly as possible. Giddy thought he could go a little further. ‘Of course, I don’t dispute your right to haul women in this car if you want to, but personally, so far as I’m concerned, I’d a good deal rather drink a can of tomatoes and do without the women and their lunch. I was never much enslaved to hard-boiled eggs, anyhow.’

‘You’ll eat ’em tomorrow, all the same.’ Ray’s tone had a steely glitter as he jumped out of the car, and Giddy stood aside to let him pass. He knew that Kennedy’s next reply would be delivered by hand. He had once seen Ray beat up a nasty fellow for insulting a Mexican woman who helped about the grub-car in the work train, and his fists had worked like two steel hammers. Giddy wasn’t looking for trouble.

Thea Kronborg is blessed with a beautiful singing voice, but its quality and possibilities could easily be overlooked in the raw Colorado town in which she is born.

Song of the Lark follows the genesis of an artist and the quality of the writing is such that I found myself following her successes and failures with equal fervour and anticipation.

3 Responses to “The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather”

  1. Alyson says:

    Its a great book. If you have a Swedish background its a must-read book.

    jb says: It’s a must read, Alyson.

  2. anonymous says:

    it was good but very detailed

  3. Bill says:

    I’ve just finished listening to an audiobook of The Song of the Lark, beautifully read by Barbara Caruso. I listen while I walk. The descriptions of people and places were so vivid that my mind ran scenes from the book like a film. You walk through her prairie towns, the cliff dwellings, Chicago at the turn of the century. This is a wonderful book, a real discovery for me.

    After I finished reading, I did a bit of research on the book. There are two versions, the original published in 1915 and a revision done by Cather in 1937. She cut approximately 10% of the text. I found out that I had listened to the revised version. I have read passages and the Epilogue of the original 1915 version and I wish I had listened to that version. When you like a book so much you want to read every word. Impossible now.

    jb says: Thanks for that, Bill. I didn’t know about the two versions, but as a writer myself I can fully understand why she wanted to do that. And yes, those cliff dwellings, the whole panarama of her America had me transfixed.