Monday, February 13, 2012

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

This seems to be one of those loveit/hateit books.  Reviews on GoodReads and LibraryThing vary from boredom to that wonderful combination of tears and laughter.  Why the disparity? I think it has a lot to do with the themes.  You either identify, or you don't.

The story follows Thea Kronborg from her humble beginnings in a small rural town, to adulthood and her struggle to fully realize her creative potential.  Thea is different from the other people in Moonstone, and eventually she must decide what she wants out of life--and if she's willing to pay the price to get it.
“I only want impossible things,” she said roughly. “The others don’t interest me.”
Not just a coming-of-age story, nor even a simple humble-beginnings tale, The Song of the Lark has much to say about prejudice, music, family, art, and that elusive quality-of-life.

Coming from a small town myself, it was easy to identify with the small town dynamics, as the following quotation shows.  This excerpt is also a good example of how, even in the midst of the heartache, Cather adds morsels of humor (similar to Tolstoy's sense of humor--derived from observing people of different kinds.)
"The fear of the tongue, that terror of little towns, is usually felt more keenly by the minister’s family than by other households. Whenever the Kronborgs wanted to do anything, even to buy a new carpet, they had to take counsel together as to whether people would talk. Mrs. Kronborg had her own conviction that people talked when they felt like it, and said what they chose, no matter how the minister’s family conducted themselves. But she did not impart these dangerous ideas to her children."
"Song of the Lark" by Jules Adolphe Breton--
a painting that Thea falls in love with in
Willa Cather's novel.
Another aspect of this small town was the depiction of the prejudice against Mexican citizens--people who had more history in the area than the new European immigrants--seeing this early picture was intriguing to me in light of the ongoing issues today.  When Thea would escape to the other side of town to hear Spanish Johnny play his mandolin and watch the women comb their long, black hair, I wished I was there with her.  Likewise, seeing Chicago and New York in the age when music and opera were the mark of culture was a little like traveling to a more sparkling era myself.

Many of the people who don't enjoy this book seem to get bored and irritated with Thea after the section on her childhood ends.  For me, this being a re-read, I was anxious to get past the childhood and onto the "good stuff".   It is seeing Thea realize that her dissatisfaction stems from a huge creativity without release; it is watching her struggle with her choice to strive for great things; it is the sadness of her success, that make my heart ache.
“Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires. The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing--desire. And before it, when it is big, all is little.”
Thea's childhood is drawn largely from Cather's own formative years, perhaps explaining why those characters are so real and multi-faceted.  I loved her mother--what a woman!  Though we only get peeks and glimpses of her, it is enough to foster admiration.
“She won’t come back a little girl,” Mrs. Kronborg said to her husband as they turned to go home. “Anyhow, she’s been a sweet one.”
If I'm able to clear my head of all the wonderful thoughts and ideas Cather imparts, of all the beautiful language for just a bit, I'd be honest and tell you that Song of the Lark does lean towards being philosophical--even somewhat sentimental at times.  Additionally, as the novel progresses, Thea becomes more distant from the story, and less likable.  However, I've never read anywhere else such an exact understanding and honest portrayal of the artistic struggle.  Especially, perhaps, for a woman.

I wouldn't recommend Song of the Lark to everyone, (in fact, if you aren't driven by passionate creativity you might read it & wonder what the heck I'm gushing about,) but if you have a artistic soul you are likely to find a unique experience here.

(Note: This is stop 5 of 19 in my challenge to read Willa Cather chronologically.  After Song of the Lark is My Antonia.)


  1. Cool! I just read O Pioneers and I'm in the middle of My Antonia right now. I think my favorite Cather is Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I read in 2010. I'm really enjoying My Antonia. I noticed that Cather is good at writing plot. I haven't read a good, plot driven book in awhile. It's nice.

  2. Interesting...I have read only The Professor's House, but you make me want to read all of Cather's novels. TPH was good, but I am now thinking there are others I'd enjoy even more. Looks like I'll definitely have to add Song of the Lark to my wishlist.

  3. Ingrid, I don't think I've ever thought about Cather as being a good 'plot author'...I'm going to have to pay attention to that more! The setting is always a huge part it seems, and the characters are so real to me, that I neglect to consider there might be something else driving me to turn those pages. :) I'll be re-reading My Antonia soon. The last time I read it I sped through it in a couple of days so that I could have it done for book club. It'll be nice to give it a little more time and see how it's different.

    Jamie, I haven't read The Professor's House yet, but it does seem like one that is mentioned often. Curiously, her Pulitzer Prize winning One of Ours doesn't seem to get read nearly as much. Wonder why that is? I'm also wondering if she's one of those authors where your favorite is likely to be the one you read first. Questions, questions. :)

  4. I've loved everything I've read by Cather, and I'm totally fascinated with this book now. Thanks for a wonderful review, Melody. I think there's a lot here that I could relate to given my small-town background.

    And The Professor's House was great. One I'll re-read. Piggy-backing on Jamie's comment. :)

  5. Melody--yes, well, Hemingway was awarded a Pulitzer for Old Man and the Sea, but I think most Hemingway fans, myself included, are not fond of that one.

  6. Andi, glad to hear you agree about The Professor's House...that you'll reread it says a lot! I'm looking forward to getting to it.

    Jamie, so funny and totally true. Ha! I guess I'll find out. :)

  7. I need to read more Cather. I loved My Antonia, and have O Pioneers! on my shelf right now. This sounds like another good one to add to the list!


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