Friday, May 20, 2011

Short Stories by Willa Cather: The Troll Garden and Others

The Troll Garden and OthersAfter falling in love with Willa Cather's Prairie Trilogy (O Pioneers! Song of the Lark and My Antonia) I decided to read through all of her published works chronologically.  Even with how much I enjoyed those three books, however, this is quite a challenge for me for a couple of reasons:
  - first: I have a hard time staying on a single author, so this may take me forever
  - second: I like to choose books based on my mood, so this may take me forever.

Which is why I've only just finished #2 of her 19 published works.

The Troll Garden and Others is a collection of short stories, and is Willa Cather's second published work (first was April Twilights, a collection of poetry published in 1903.)  It was first published in 1905 and contains the following short stories: (titles link to an online copy of the story, titles in bold were my favorites)

The Troll Garden:
  - Flavia and Her Artists interesting peek at the artsy social scene at the turn of the century.
  - The Sculptor's Funeral layered, complex characters--felt like the Willa Cather I know
  - "A Death in the Desert" a sad look at the inequality of love
  - The Garden Lodge delightful little character sketch
  - The Marriage of Phaedra a story of art and artists
  - A Wagner Matinee another lovely happy/sad story with great insight into character
  - Paul's Case "A Study in Temperament" ...truly does feel more like a study than a story.

And Others:
  - On the Divide the old world in a new land--thought provoking look at culture clash
  - Eric Hermannson's Soul beautiful but saddening look at religion back in the revival days
  - The Enchanted Bluff a look at the dreams of boys and how the years pass
  - The Bohemian Girl community and family expectations are at odds with happiness

I have to mention that I've discovered I'm really no good at reading short story collections.  This took me forever to read, simply because I'd read one story and then be in the mood for other things.  I finally forced myself to just finish it already--and I'm glad I did!  This collection had some gems in it--much more poetic than her poetry, funny enough. Some of these stories have that spark of magic that make Willa Cather so easy to love.

The Garden Lodge 
Much of Cather's works seem to try to make sense of the disparity between poverty and art, and the choice between familial duty and pursuing dreams. The Garden Lodge, which at first glance seems to be a completely different type of story than the others, soon shows itself as exploring the same concept from another light.  This story is more lighthearted, yet in some ways more dramatic, than many of her other stories, and was a fun change of pace.  Apart from addressing poverty and art, this story also skillfully shows the internal struggle even the staunchest character may have with the choices made in life.

A Wagner Matinee
American grade schools exalt the Pioneer Spirit--the strength and sturdiness of the people who conquered the West--and rarely explore the more personal side (or drawbacks) to the lives they lived.  Cather's work sets some of this to rights.  In A Wagner Matinee, we experience the generational divide (as in O Pioneers!) that separated the strength of character  in the pioneers from the industrial innovation of their children.  Again, this story speaks to the love of art and following dreams, contrasted with convention and duty (and the poverty that often went along with that.)  This story is a precious peek into the wealth of feeling and experience that resides in the older generation.

Eric Hermannson's Soul
How sad is it that the one thing that should bring comfort and relief (namely, faith) is often the very source of contention and misery?  It would be nice if I could claim that the church was represented incorrectly in this book, but it felt painfully realistic.  Again, Cather explores the choice between pleasure in art and duty to family/community, but this time underpinned by religion.  The look at that "old time religion" was fascinating to me, and it was made even more poignant by the element of love.  We, as humans, are continually evaluating our priorities, whether consciously or not, and sometimes that requires a big decision--an eternal decision--to be made.

The Bohemian Girl
If the character sketches (like in The Garden Lodge and A Wagner Matinee) aren't really your thing, you might try The Bohemian Girl, which--as the longest story in the collection--has a more developed storyline.  Thematically, it still focuses on generations and expectations, choices in life, and love.  A young man returns home, to the surprise of his family, and makes some waves.  The story doesn't end with this young man or the Bohemian girl, however, but continues on to examine some of the consequences of their decisions.  Our choices rarely affect only ourselves, even if we are convinced that they do.

My two favorite stories were A Wagner Matinee and Eric Hermannson's Soul.  Those two I'd highly recommend--and the good news is that you can read them online for free!  The other stories weren't bad, but unless you are a Cather fan or a short story fan, I don't think that this collection is a must-read.  However, the amount of growth in Cather's writing from her first published work (poetry) to her second (these short stories) seems quite significant.  In her poems, there were hints of her interest areas, but it seemed like she had a difficult time expressing herself.  In prose, however, she has really opened up.

Alexander's Bridge (Vintage Classics)Next up in my Willa Cather Journey: Alexander's Bridge--her first published novel.  First published in 1912, and weighing in at a slim 128 pages, it is the only novel published before the Prairie Trilogy.    I'm eager to see how it compares, especially since the setting is not the prairie but rather Boston, Canada, and London.  In my experience, it is Cather's ability to understand and draw a character that makes you feel their surroundings...we'll see if my theory holds true after reading this one!

Title: The Troll Garden and Others
Author: Willa Cather
Pages: 200
Published: 2006 Aegypan (orig. 1905)
Read For: personal challenge
My Rating: 4 stars


  1. I've always wanted to read My Antonia. I have it on my shelf......maybe that should become one of my summer reads. Your two favorite short stories in this collection sound really great.

  2. My Antonia is also on my shelf - which will be my first Cather. I'm looking forward to it, inspired that you want to read everything she has written!

  3. I love Willa Cather. Short story collections are difficult for me to read straight through, too. I'll often read one every few days or even once a week. I seem to appreciate them more that way. Will look for some of these online - thanks!

  4. I've read My Antonia and really liked it. Shame on my that I didn't know it was part of a trilogy. Have you tried short-stories in audio format? I usually have good results with them.

  5. Heidi, if you don't get a chance to get to My Antonia this summer, you should read one of these stories online...I think that would give you a good idea of her style without much of a time commitment.

    Sarah, it's kind of out of character for me to want to read someone's work chronologically...sounds like a lot of work! But I really connect with Cather's ideas on art, love, and life, and her writing is very soothing for me. I hope you enjoy My Antonia!

    JoAnn, isn't she great? Short stories are full stories, so it makes sense that it's difficult to read straight through a collection. Most stories need a little bit of digestion time after consuming, before jumping into a new one.

    Alexandra, "trilogy" isn't used in the same sense it is now...I should've said something about that! In this case, each story is completely separate and stand-alone, they just were written close together and share a focus on the prairie. I like your idea about short stories on audio! I'll have to look into it.


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