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The Song Of The Lark: 100th Anniversary Edition
     

The Song Of The Lark: 100th Anniversary Edition

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by Willa Cather, Melissa Homestead (Introduction)
 

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100th Anniversary Edition

“Miss Cather, indeed, here steps definitely into the small class of American novelists who are seriously to be reckoned with.”—H. L. Mencken
 
“To reread Cather is to rediscover an arresting chapter in the national past.”—Los Angeles Times

Feisty Thea Kronborg,

Overview

100th Anniversary Edition

“Miss Cather, indeed, here steps definitely into the small class of American novelists who are seriously to be reckoned with.”—H. L. Mencken
 
“To reread Cather is to rediscover an arresting chapter in the national past.”—Los Angeles Times

Feisty Thea Kronborg, with her rapturous singing voice, is headed for great things. But her upbringing in a raw, provincial Colorado town has practically stifled her artistic ambitions. Only a few people in Moonstone recognize Thea’s world-class talent. One of them is Ray Kennedy, who, entranced by Thea’s voice, hopes to marry her, but is destined to unchain her. Sustained by determination and a pioneer’s spirit, and inspired by the Native American culture that surrounded her in youth, Thea makes her way in the world. But with loneliness as her constant companion, she comes to realize what sacrifices a true artist must make.…

With an Introduction by Melissa Homestead

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"To reread Cather is to rediscover an arresting chapter in the national past."
--Los Angeles Times
 

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780451530486
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/06/2007
Series:
Signet Classics Series
Edition description:
100th Anniversary Edition
Pages:
480
Sales rank:
134,619
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Table of Contents

 

Title Page

Copyright Page

Introduction

 

PART I - Friends of Childhood

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

xx

 

PART II - The Song of the Lark

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

 

PART III - Stupid Faces

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

 

PART IV - The Ancient People

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

 

PART V - Doctor Archie’s Venture

I

II

III

IV

V

 

PART VI - Kronborg Ten Years Later

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

 

Epilogue

SIGNET CLASSICS

SIGNET CLASSICS

READ THE TOP 20 SIGNET CLASSICS

Born in Virginia, Willa Cather (1873-1948) moved with her family to Nebraska before she was ten. She graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895, then taught high school and worked for the Pittsburgh Leader before being appointed associate editor of McClure’s Magazine. Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, in 1912. In O Pioneers! (1913), she turned to her greatest subject, immigrant life on the Nebraska prairies, and established herself as a major American novelist. O Pioneers! was followed by other novels, including My Ántonia (1918), The Professor’s House (1922), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Melissa Homestead, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is the author of American Women Authors and Literary Property, 1822-1869.

SIGNET CLASSICS

Published by New American Library, a division of

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, USA

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England

Published by Signet Classics, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Signet Classics Printing, April 1991

eISBN : 978-1-101-00381-7

 

Introduction copyright © Melissa Homestead, 2007

All rights reserved

 

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

 

 

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INTRODUCTION

In May of 1912, Willa Cather traveled to Winslow, Arizona, to visit her brother, Douglass, who worked for the railroad. The year before, she had begun a leave of absence from McClure’s Magazine, where she had been an editor since 1906, so that she could focus her energies on writing fiction. Although she had been publishing short fiction regularly since 1892, her first novel—the cosmopolitan, somewhat derivative Alexander’s Bridge—did not appear until 1912. Feeling tired and unwell, she, like many other Americans, sought renewal in the dry air and open spaces of the desert. After six years in the fast-paced, hothouse working and living environment of New York City, she enjoyed the company of the railroad men and of local Mexican residents. Particularly memorable for her was a trip with her brother to Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, the site of Indian cliff dwellers’ ruins. On her way back east, she visited her family in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she had spent seven years of her childhood, and watched the wheat harvest come in.

In a strange sort of creative alchemy, her time in the Southwestern desert crystallized in her mind a way to approach the Nebraska prairies and the experiences of immigrant farm women as a subject for fiction. Thus the Arizona desert produced the novel Cather later characterized as her real “first novel,” O Pioneers!, the story of Swedish immigrant Alexandra Bergson, who tames the prairies. The time she spent in the desert also fortified Cather’s resolve to at least partially sever her ties to McClure’s—she resigned as editor, although she continued to write for the magazine for three more years. As a result of her trip to the Southwest, she had, as she wrote in 1931, “recovered from the conventional editorial point of view” and was able to write about “a kind of country [she] loved” rather than working up “interesting material” alien to her.1 As she wrote in 1928 in a copy of O Pioneers! she sent to a childhood friend in Red Cloud, “This was the first time I walked off on my own feet—everything before was half read and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one I hit the home pasture.”

Critics immediately recognized O Pioneers! as powerful and original, but The Song of the Lark (1915) produced more mixed responses. On the one hand, the novel presents, like O Pioneers!, the inspiring and moving life story of a Swedish-American girl raised in the western United States. While Alexandra’s artistry is agricultural, Thea Kronborg, heroine of The Song of the Lark, becomes an international opera star. The daughter of a minister, she grows up in a crowded house in the small town of Moonstone, Colorado. With the support of her mother and adult male friends in the community, she pursues her dream of becoming an artist. She first trains as a pianist, but in Chicago, she discovers that voice is her true instrument. After an important trip to the desert Southwest, where she comes to a deeper understanding of herself and the nature of art, she spends a decade studying and singing in Germany before returning to New York City and to acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera. However, critics (later including Cather herself) found the novel too long and questioned Cather’s inclusion of the final section, which treats Thea as a mature artist rather than as a struggling young woman.

This sense that the novel consists of two unintegrated pieces stems, in part, from Cather’s complex merging of sources. Cather was a writer, not a musician, but her künstlerroman, her novel of artistic development, clearly had its origins in her own experiences. As countless critics have observed, Moonstone, Colorado, is Red Cloud, Nebraska. A map of Moonstone drawn from verbal descriptions in The Song of the Lark would serve as an accurate map of Red Cloud, and the Kronborg house filled with seven children and Thea’s unheated attic bedroom with its rose wallpaper is Cather’s childhood home and Cather’s own room. Thea’s frustrations with her musical study and work as an accompanist in Chicago owe something to Cather’s disaffection with magazine work, and Cather transforms her own creative rebirth in Walnut Canyon into Thea’s creative rebirth in Panther Canyon.

Cather’s novel also derives, however, from her continuing ties to McClure’s after 1912 as a staff writer. In 1913, she interviewed Olive Fremstad, a Swedish-American diva, for a McClure’s article, and a friendship ensued. In Cather’s article “Three American Singers,” her preference for Fremstad over the two other singers, Geraldine Farrar and Louise Homer, is clear. American audiences may prefer Farrar and Homer, who (in Cather’s rendering) achieved their success early and easily, but Cather praises the immigrant Fremstad as “the most interesting kind of American. As Roosevelt once said, Americanism is not a condition of birth, but a condition of spirit.”2 “Sheer power of will and character” define Fremstad’s spirit for Cather: “Circumstances have never helped Mme. Fremstad. She grew up in a new, crude country where there was neither artistic stimulus nor discriminating taste. She was poor, and always had to earn her own living and pay for her music lessons out of her earnings. She fought her own way toward the intellectual centers of the world. She wrung from fortune the one profit which adversity sometimes leaves with strong natures—the power to conquer.” The story of Fremstad’s early life as described by Cather in “Three American Singers” resembles only slightly Thea’s life in Moonstone and Chicago, but Thea’s spirit resembles Fremstad’s. Despite Cather’s later denials that the novel had any relation to Fremstad’s life and career, Fremstad’s ascent as the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her age clearly inspired the latter sections of The Song of the Lark.

In 1931, Cather reflected on The Song of the Lark and critical responses to it. She recalled British publisher William Heinemann’s refusal to publish an edition because “he thought ... I had taken the wrong road, and that the full-blooded method, which told everything about everybody, was not natural to me and was not the one in which I would ever take satisfaction.”3 Indeed, at nearly 150,000 words and 490 pages, the novel was nearly twice as long. as O Pioneers! and twenty thousand words longer than her second-longest novel, One of Ours (1922). In 1915, an anonymous review in the New Republic, probably by Randolph Bourne, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic readers of Cather in the teens, similarly criticized the novel’s excess, as well as its bifurcation. Contrasting the earlier sections of the novel with the latter, the critic intuited the autobiographical origins of Thea’s youth and the external origins of her professional career: “Miss Cather would perhaps be shocked to know how sharp were the contrasts between those parts of her book which are. built out of her own experience and those which are imagined. Her defects are almost wholly those of unassimilated experience. The musical life of this opera singer who has so fascinated her she has admired, but she has not made it imaginatively her own. She has contented herself with the fascination and has not grasped the difficulty of reading herself into this other life and making it so much her that the actual and the imagined are no longer separable.” 4 In 1932, in a new preface to the novel, Cather echoed (perhaps deliberately) the judgments of this review. “The chief fault of the book is that it describes a descending curve,” she wrote; “the life of a successful artist in the full tide of achievement is not so interesting as the life of a talented young girl ‘fighting her way.’ ” When she revised The Song of the Lark in 1937 for a collected edition of her novels, she cut nearly seven thousand words, most of them in the final two sections and the epilogue (this Signet Classics edition presents the longer 1915 text).

These judgments have become critical truisms, but they also evidence a discomfort with Thea’s singing as a career, with art conducted aggressively as a business. For late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century critics, the most compelling section of the novel has been the Panther Canyon section. Although the section concludes with Fred Ottenberg enjoying the canyon with Thea, for months, she spends her days alone in the canyon, climbing its walls, bathing in its streams, and lying inside the cliff dwellers’ houses in a state of semiconsciousness, activities that Cather describes in lush and sensuous language. Contemplating the pottery shards that testify to the artistic sensibility of the Indian women who lived in the canyon a thousand years before, Thea comes to see herself as part of a female artistic lineage in which creativity is located in the female body: “The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself.... In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.” For many critics, Thea’s epiphany is a powerful corrective to a masculinist aesthetic tradition, which aligns creativity with maleness and transcendence (a tradition which Cather herself, as a young journalist reviewing books and performances, loudly proclaimed). Others have pointed to the problematic nature of Thea’s imaginative and physical appropriation of the artifacts of native culture, a dynamic that recurs in the story of Tom Outland in The Professor’s House (1925)—Thea conveniently claims the absent cliff dwellers as her forebears while ignoring their living descendants nearby and the long history of conflict between European and Native Americans in the Southwest.

Both critical approaches to the novel trouble the notion that art and the artist are purely transcendent. On the one hand, Thea’s art is grounded in the body, and on the other hand, it depends upon Thea’s appropriation of native culture and artifacts. However, such an intense focus on Thea in the canyon and on the supposedly more autobiographical portion of the novel has left Thea’s professional career more often apologized for than analyzed. Cather expressed regret for making a great artist “somewhat dry and preoccupied. Her human life is made up of exacting engagements and dull business detail,”4 but this statement of explanation and apology is telling. Is the life of the artist a succession of epiphanies, of moments of transcendence, such as take place in Panther Canyon? Or is it a life of “engagements and dull business detail”? Can the two ultimately be separated, or is the artist who hopes to have an audience necessarily entangled in the messy, quotidian details of the market?

Business and finance are never entirely absent from the novel or the life of its heroine. Thea’s parents have limited means to support their large brood of children, and Thea begins earning her own way at age fourteen by teaching piano. In Chicago, she first supports herself as a church vocal soloist, and after she starts training as a singer, she works as her teacher’s piano accompanist. Despite this grounding in economic realities, Cather oddly detaches Thea’s early life from larger economic forces by placing Moonstone in the midst of desert sand hills. Although the town of Moonstone resembles the town of Red Cloud, Moonstone lacks Red Cloud’s economic reason for being. Red Cloud, a town of nearly two thousand people during Cather’s childhood, existed to serve the great agricultural enterprise taking root as the prairies were plowed up. In her other fictional representations of Red Cloud, this bottom line is always visible. At the beginning of O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson has come in from the farm for provisions in Hanover, and we first see her as she is struggling down the street in a winter storm. In My Ántonia (1918), when Jim Burden’s family moves from their farm into Black Hawk, their country neighbors use their barn when they come in to town to shop or to bring their crops to market. In x One of Ours, we first meet Claude Wheeler as he is anticipating going into Frankfort to see the circus, and his older brother, Bayliss, has established himself as a farm-implements dealer in town. Moonstone, however, is surrounded by “gleaming” white sand hills that blow with the wind and change color with the changing light of the sun and the moon. When Dr. Archie, Thea’s friend and the town physician, asks her, “Why are we in Moonstone?”, the question resonates far beyond the conversation. Why are hundreds of people living in a town in the midst of gleaming white sand hills with no agriculture or other economic enterprise visible?

The answer would seem to be that it suited Cather’s artistic purposes to have her budding artist living in a strange and magically isolated community—despite the railroad that connects them to other towns, cities, and states, they might as well be living on the moon. Cather’s child of the moon is ultimately, however, a woman of the world, where art is conducted as a business. In the sections entitled “Doctor Archie’s Venture” and “Kronborg,” we observe Thea primarily through the eyes of her male patrons or, as they call themselves, her “backers.” The language of finance and investment permeates the thoughts and speech of both Dr. Archie and Fred Ottenberg (the son of a wealthy beer baron who befriended Thea in Chicago). Called to New York to lend Thea money so she can leave for Germany, Dr. Archie, whose mining stocks have made him a wealthy man, thinks that Thea’s prospects are “more interesting than mines and making your daily bread.” However, his next thought turns Thea into an investment prospect, just like his mines: “It’s worth paying out to be in on it,—for a fellow like me. And when it’s Thea—Oh, I back her!” Fred includes himself in Thea’s company of investors, even if she will not accept a loan from him. He recites the names of Thea’s other male friends and teachers from Moonstone and Chicago: “ ‘Wunsch and Dr. Archie, and Ray, and I,’—he told them on his fingers,—‘your whistling posts! You haven’t done so badly. We’ve backed you as we could.’” Contemplating Thea’s increased self-possession and physical allure in the wake of her affair with him, he thinks of this change as “his ‘created value.’” Indeed, even Thea’s nonproductive months alone in Panther Canyon are entangled in Fred’s finances. The canyon is part of a ranch owned by his father, so proceeds from the family beer empire underwrite her artistic awakening.

Ten years later, Dr. Archie tells Fred that Thea’s letters to him are “about her engagements and contracts,” and although he claims to know “so little about [the music] business,” he is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Colorado, and it makes perfect sense that Thea would report to her business-minded “investor” about the business of the arts. Although much of “Kronborg” consists of men talking about her, when Thea talks, she talks contracts. “I’m holding out for a big contract: forty performances,” she tells Archie and Ottenberg. Looking forward to the imminent decline of an older diva, she explains, “It’s going to be one of those between seasons; the old singers are too old, and the new ones are too new. They might as well risk me as anybody. So I want good terms. The next five or six years are going to be my best.” Thea will have to live as a diva for the rest of her life on the proceeds of her best years, so she is out for as much as she can get. In the epilogue, told from the perspective of Thea’s aged aunt Tillie back in Moonstone, Thea has not quite yet declined from her artistic peak. Tillie glories in repeating to Thea’s old friends and enemies her rate of pay, “a thousand dollars a night.” This is one aspect of her novel that Cather highlighted to Houghton Mifflin when discussing marketing strategies; she suggested advertising to target students at women’s colleges because Thea’s aggressive careerism would appeal to them.

To return to Cather and her own artistic career, perhaps we should recognize something of Cather in “Kronborg,” as well as in the earlier sections of the novel. Cather, like Thea, had a wealthy patron, Isabelle McClung, a woman often described in more transcendent terms as Cather’s “muse.” During her years as a journalist and high school teacher in Pittsburgh, Cather lived in the McClung household, and.after she spent the summer of 1912 in Nebraska, she stayed in Pittsburgh for several months to begin writing O Pioneers! Biographers and literary critics (partially at Cather’s suggestion) have characterized Cather as arriving in Arizona a harried magazine editor and leaving a nascent great novelist, as if her identity as a great creative artist was entirely separate from the more business-oriented work of editing magazines. Her continued association with Mc-Clure’s was essential to her writing of The Song of the Lark, however—no “Three American Singers,” no Thea Kronborg—and in any event, Cather had not fully detached herself from the editorial side of McClure’s. After leaving Pittsburgh and arriving back in New York City in 1912, she moved into a new apartment in Greenwich Village with Edith Lewis, who was an editor at Mc-Clure’s until early 1915 (and who may thus have served as Cather’s editor for “Three American Singers”). After three years at Every Week magazine, Lewis spent the rest of her working life in advertising and continued to share a home with Cather. For the remainder of her career as a novelist, Cather, like the heroine of The Song of the Lark, remained vitally engaged with the business of art.

—Melissa Homestead

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Memoirs and Biographies

Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives (New York:
Pantheon, 1989).

Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press [Bison Books], 2000).

Sharon O’Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New
York: Oxford, 1987).

Elizabeth Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Athens:
Ohio University Press, 1992).

Janis Stout, Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World
(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000).

James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

Literary Studies

Andrew Jewell, editor, The Willa Cather Archive
, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Marilee Lindemann, editor, The Cambridge Companion
to Willa Cather (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005).

—, Willa Cather: Queering America (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1999).

Susan J. Rosowski, The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s
Romanticism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
1986).

John N. Swift and Joseph R. Urgo, editors, Willa Cather
and the American Southwest (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 2002).

Mary Titus, “Cather’s Creative Women and DuMaurier’s
Cozy Men: The Song of the Lark and Trilby,”
Modern Language Studies 24, no. 2 (Spring 1994),
27-37.

Joseph R. Urgo, Willa Cather and the Myth of American
Migration (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois
Press, 1995).

PART I

Friends of Childhood

I

DR. HOWARD ARCHIE had just come up from a game of pool with the Jewish clothier and two traveling men who happened to be staying overnight in Moonstone. His offices were in the Duke Block, over the drug store. Larry, the doctor’s man, had lit the overhead light in the waiting-room and the double student’s lamp on the desk in the study. The isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow, and the air in the study was so hot that as he came in the doctor opened the door into his little operating-room, where there was no stove. The waiting-room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country parlor. The study had worn, unpainted floors, but there was a look of winter comfort about it. The doctor’s flat-top desk was large and well made; the papers were in orderly piles, under glass weights. Behind the stove a wide bookcase, with double glass doors, reached from the floor to the ceiling. It was filled with medical books of every thickness and color. On the top shelf stood a long row of thirty or forty volumes, bound all alike in dark mottled board covers, with imitation leather backs.

As the doctor in New England villages is proverbially old, so the doctor in small Colorado towns twenty-five years ago was generally young. Dr. Archie was barely thirty. He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head. He was a distinguished-looking man, for that part of the world, at least. There was something individual in the way in which his reddish-brown hair, parted cleanly at the side, bushed over his high forehead. His nose was straight and thick, and his eyes were intelligent. He wore a curly, reddish mustache and an imperial, cut trimly, which made him look a little like the pictures of Napoleon III. His hands were large and well kept, but ruggedly formed, and the backs were shaded with crinkly reddish hair. He wore a blue suit of woolly, wide-waled serge; the traveling men had known at a glance that it was made by a Denver tailor. The doctor was always well dressed.

Dr. Archie turned up the student’s lamp and sat down in the swivel chair before his desk. He sat uneasily, beating a tattoo on his knees with his fingers, and looked about him as if he were bored. He glanced at his watch, then absently took from his pocket a bunch of small keys, selected one and looked at it. A contemptuous smile, barely perceptible, played on his lips, but his eyes remained meditative. Behind the door that led into the hall, under his buffalo-skin driving-coat, was a locked cupboard. This the doctor opened mechanically, kicking aside a pile of muddy overshoes. Inside, on the shelves, were whiskey glasses and decanters, lemons, sugar, and bitters. Hearing a step in the empty, echoing hall without, the doctor closed the cupboard again, snapping the Yale lock. The door of the waiting-room opened, a man entered and came on into the consulting-room.

“Good-evening, Mr. Kronborg,” said the doctor carelessly. “Sit down.”

His visitor was a tall, loosely built man, with a thin brown beard, streaked with gray. He wore a frock coat, a broad-brimmed black hat, a white lawn necktie, and steel-rimmed spectacles. Altogether there was a pretentious and important air about him, as he lifted the skirts of his coat and sat down.

“Good-evening, doctor. Can you step around to the house with me? I think Mrs. Kronborg will need you this evening.” This was said with profound gravity and, curiously enough, with a slight embarrassment.

“Any hurry?” the doctor asked over his shoulder as he went into his operating-room.

Mr. Kronborg coughed behind his hand, and contracted his brows. His face threatened at every moment to break into a smile of foolish excitement. He controlled it only by calling upon his habitual pulpit manner. “Well, I think it would be as well to go immediately. Mrs. Kronborg will be more comfortable if you are there. She has been suffering for some time.”

The doctor came back and threw a black bag upon his desk. He wrote some instructions for his man on a prescription pad and then drew on his overcoat. “All ready,” he announced, putting out his lamp. Mr. Kronborg rose and they tramped through the empty hall and down the stairway to the street. The drug store below was dark, and the saloon next door was just closing. Every other light on Main Street was out.

On either side of the road and at the outer edge of the board sidewalk, the snow had been shoveled into breastworks. The town looked small and black, flattened down in the snow, muffled and all but extinguished. Overhead the stars shone gloriously. It was impossible not to notice them. The air was so clear that the white sand hills to the east of Moonstone gleamed softly. Following the Reverend Mr. Kronborg along the narrow walk, past the little dark, sleeping houses, the doctor looked up at the flashing night and whistled softly. It did seem that people were stupider than they need be; as if on a night like this there ought to be something better to do than to sleep nine hours, or to assist Mrs. Kronborg in functions which she could have performed so admirably unaided. He wished he had gone down to Denver to hear Fay Templeton sing “See-Saw.” Then he remembered that he had a personal interest in this family, after all. They turned into another street and saw before them lighted windows; a low story-and-a-half house, with a wing built on at the right and a kitchen addition at the back, everything a little on the slant—roofs, windows, and doors. As they approached the gate, Peter Kronborg’s pace grew brisker. His nervous, ministerial cough annoyed the doctor. “Exactly as if he were going to give out a text,” he thought. He drew off his glove and felt in his vest pocket. “Have a troche, Kronborg,” he said, producing some. “Sent me for samples. Very good for a rough throat.”

“Ah, thank you, thank you. I was in something of a hurry. I neglected to put on my overshoes. Here we are, doctor.” Kronborg opened his front door—seemed delighted to be at home again.

The front hall was dark and cold; the hatrack was hung with an astonishing number of children’s hats and caps and cloaks. They were even piled on the table beneath the hatrack. Under the table was a heap of rubbers and overshoes. While the doctor hung up his coat and hat, Peter Kronborg opened the door into the living-room. A glare of light greeted them, and a rush of hot, stale air, smelling of warming flannels.

 

At three o’clock in the morning Dr. Archie was in the parlor putting on his cuffs and coat—there was no spare bedroom in that house. Peter Kronborg’s seventh child, a boy, was being soothed and cosseted by his aunt, Mrs. Kronborg was asleep, and the doctor was going home. But he wanted first to speak to Kronborg, who, coatless and fluttery, was pouring coal into the kitchen stove. As the doctor crossed the dining-room he paused and listened. From one of the wing rooms, off to the left, he heard rapid, distressed breathing. He went to the kitchen door.

“One of the children sick in there?” he asked, nodding toward the partition.

Kronborg hung up the stove-lifter and dusted his fingers. “It must be Thea. I meant to ask you to look at her. She has a croupy cold. But in my excitement—Mrs. Kronborg is doing finely, eh, doctor? Not many of your patients with such a constitution, I expect.”

“Oh, yes. She’s a fine mother.” The doctor took up the lamp from the kitchen table and unceremoniously went into the wing room. Two chubby little boys were asleep in a double bed, with the coverlids over their noses and their feet drawn up. In a single bed, next to theirs, lay a little girl of eleven, wide awake, two yellow braids sticking up on the pillow behind her. Her face was scarlet and her eyes were blazing.

The doctor shut the door behind him. “Feel pretty sick, Thea?” he asked as he took out his thermometer. “Why didn’t you call somebody?”

She looked at him with greedy affection. “I thought you were here,” she spoke between quick breaths. “There is a new baby, isn’t there? Which?”

“Which?” repeated the doctor.

“Brother or sister?”

He smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Brother,” he said, taking her hand. “Open.”

“Good. Brothers are better,” she murmured as he put the glass tube under her tongue.

“Now, be still, I want to count.” Dr. Archie reached for her hand and took out his watch. When he put her hand back under the quilt he went over to one of the windows—they were both tight shut—and lifted it a little way. He reached up and ran his hand along the cold, unpapered wall. “Keep under the covers; I’ll come back to you in a moment,” he said, bending over the glass lamp with his thermometer. He winked at her from the door before he shut it.

Peter Kronborg was sitting in his wife’s room, holding the bundle which contained his son. His air of cheerful importance, his beard and glasses, even his shirt-sleeves, annoyed the doctor. He beckoned Kronborg into the living-room and said sternly:—

“You’ve got a very sick child in there. Why didn’t you call me before? It’s pneumonia, and she must have been sick for several days. Put the baby down somewhere, please, and help me make up the bed-lounge here in the parlor. She’s got to be in a warm room, and she’s got to be quiet. You must keep the other children out. Here, this thing opens up, I see,” swinging back the top of the carpet lounge. “We can lift her mattress and carry her in just as she is. I don’t want to disturb her more than is necessary.”

Kronborg was all concern immediately. The two men took up the mattress and carried the sick child into the parlor. “I’ll have to go down to my office to get some medicine, Kronborg. The drug store won’t, be open. Keep the covers on her. I won’t be gone long. Shake down the stove and put on a little coal, but not too much; so it’ll catch quickly, I mean. Find an old sheet for me, and put it there to warm.”

The doctor caught his coat and hurried out into the dark street. Nobody was stirring yet, and the cold was bitter. He was tired and hungry and in no mild humor. “The idea!” he muttered; “to be such an ass at his age, about the seventh! And to feel no responsibility about the little girl. Silly old goat! The baby would have got into the world somehow; they always do. But a nice little girl like that—she’s worth the whole litter. Where she ever got it from—” He turned into the Duke Block and ran up the stairs to his office.

Thea Kronborg, meanwhile, was wondering why she happened to be in the parlor, where nobody but company—usually visiting preachers—ever slept. She had moments of stupor when she did not see anything, and moments of excitement when she felt that something unusual and pleasant was about to happen, when she saw everything clearly in the red light from the isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner—the nickel trimmings on the stove itself, the pictures on the wall, which she thought very beautiful, the flowers on the Brussels carpet, Czerny’s “Daily Studies” which stood open on the upright piano. She forgot, for the time being, all about the new baby.

When she heard the front door open, it occurred to her that the pleasant thing which was going to happen was Dr. Archie himself. He came in and warmed his hands at the stove. As he turned to her, she threw herself wearily toward him, half out of her bed. She would have tumbled to the floor had he not caught her. He gave her some medicine and went to the kitchen for something he needed. She drowsed and lost the sense of his being there. When she opened her eyes again, he was kneeling before the stove, spreading something dark and sticky on a white cloth, with a big spoon; batter, perhaps. Presently she felt him taking off her nightgown. He wrapped the hot plaster about her chest. There seemed to be straps which he pinned over her shoulders. Then he took out a thread and needle and began to sew her up in it. That, she felt, was too strange; she must be dreaming anyhow, so she succumbed to her drowsiness.

Thea had been moaning with every breath since the doctor came back, but she did not know it. She did not realize that she was suffering pain. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up. It was perplexing and unsatisfactory, like dreaming. She wished she could waken up and see what was going on.

The doctor thanked God that he had persuaded Peter Kronborg to keep out of the way. He could do better by the child if he had her to himself. He had no children of his own. His marriage was a very unhappy one. As he lifted and undressed Thea, he thought to himself what a beautiful thing a little girl’s body was,—like a flower. It was so neatly and delicately fashioned, so soft, and so milky white. Thea must have got her hair and her silky skin from her mother. She was a little Swede, through and through. Dr. Archie could not help thinking how he would cherish a little creature like this if she were his. Her hands, so little and hot, so clever, too,—he glanced at the open exercise book on the piano. When he had stitched up the flaxseed jacket, he wiped it neatly about the edges, where the paste had worked out on the skin. He put on her the clean nightgown he had warmed before the fire, and tucked the blankets about her. As he pushed back the hair that had fuzzed down over her eyebrows, he felt her head thoughtfully with the tips of his fingers. No, he couldn’t say that it was different from any other child’s head, though he believed that there was something very different about her. He looked intently at her wide, flushed face, freckled nose, fierce little mouth, and her delicate, tender chin—the one soft touch in her hard little Scandinavian face, as if some fairy godmother had caressed her there and left a cryptic promise. Her brows were usually drawn together defiantly, but never when she was with Dr. Archie. Her affection for him was prettier than most of the things that went to make up the doctor’s life in Moonstone.

The windows grew gray. He heard a tramping on the attic floor, on the back stairs, then cries: “Give me my shirt!” “Where’s my other stocking?”

“I’ll have to stay till they get off to school,” he reflected, “or they’ll be in here tormenting her, the whole lot of them.”

II

FOR THE NEXT FOUR DAYS it seemed to Dr. Archie that his patient might slip through his hands, do what he might. But she did not. On the contrary, after that she recovered very rapidly. As her father remarked, she must have inherited the “constitution” which he was never tired of admiring in her mother.

One afternoon, when her new brother was a week old, the doctor found Thea very comfortable and happy in her bed in the parlor. The sunlight was pouring in over her shoulders, the baby was asleep on a pillow in a big rocking-chair beside her. Whenever he stirred, she put’ out her hand and rocked him. Nothing of him was visible but a flushed, puffy forehead and an uncompromisingly big, bald cranium. The door into her mother’s room stood open, and Mrs. Kronborg was sitting up in bed darning stockings. She was a short, stalwart woman, with a short neck and a determined-looking head. Her skin was very fair, her face calm and unwrinkled, and her yellow hair, braided down her back as she lay in bed, still looked like a girl’s. She was a woman whom Dr. Archie respected; active, practical, unruffled; goodhumored, but determined. Exactly the sort of woman to take care of a flighty preacher. She had brought her husband some property, too,—one fourth of her father’s broad acres in Nebraska,—but this she kept in her own name. She had profound respect for her husband’s erudition and eloquence. She sat under his preaching with deep humility, and was as much taken in by his stiff shirt and white neckties as if she had not ironed them herself by lamplight the night before they appeared correct and spotless in the pulpit. But for all this, she had no confidence in his administration of worldly affairs. She looked to him for morning prayers and grace at table; she expected him to name the babies and to supply whatever parental sentiment there was in the house, to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to point the children to moral and patriotic ideals. It was her work to keep their bodies, their clothes, and their conduct in some sort of order, and this she accomplished with a success that was a source of wonder to her neighbors. As she used to remark, and her husband admiringly to echo, she “had never lost one.” With all his flightiness, Peter Kronborg appreciated the matter-of-fact, punctual way in which his wife got her children into the world and along in it. He believed, and he was right in believing, that the sovereign State of Colorado was much indebted to Mrs. Kronborg and women like her.

Mrs. Kronborg believed that the size of every family was decided in heaven. More modern views would not have startled her; they would simply have seemed foolish—thin chatter, like the boasts of the men who built the tower of Babel, or like Axel’s plan to breed ostriches in the chicken yard. From what evidence Mrs. Kronborg formed her opinions on this and other matters, it would have been difficult to say, but once formed, they were unchangeable. She would no more have questioned her convictions than she would have questioned revelation. Calm and even-tempered, naturally kind, she was capable of strong prejudices, and she never forgave.

When the doctor came in to see Thea, Mrs. Kronborg was reflecting that the washing was a week behind, and deciding what she had better do about it. The arrival of a new baby meant a revision of her entire domestic schedule, and as she drove her needle along she had been working out new sleeping arrangements and cleaning days. The doctor had entered the house without knocking, after making noise enough in the hall to prepare his patients. Thea was reading, her book propped up before her in the sunlight.

“Mustn’t do that; bad for your eyes,” he said, as Thea shut the book quickly and slipped it under the covers.

Mrs. Kronborg called from her bed: “Bring the baby here, doctor, and have that chair. She wanted him in there for company.”

Before the doctor picked up the baby, he put a yellow paper bag down on Thea’s coverlid and winked at her. They had a code of winks and grimaces. When he went in to chat with her mother, Thea opened the bag cautiously, trying to keep it from crackling. She drew out a long bunch of white grapes, with a little of the sawdust in which they had been packed still clinging to them. They were called Malaga grapes in Moonstone, and once or twice during the winter the leading grocer got a keg of them. They were used mainly for table decoration, about Christmas-time. Thea had never had more than one grape at a time before. When the doctor came back she was holding the almost transparent fruit up in the sunlight, feeling the pale-green skins softly with the tips of her fingers. She did not thank him; she only snapped her eyes at him in a special way which he understood, and, when he gave her his hand, put it quickly and shyly under her cheek, as if she were trying to do so without knowing it—and without his knowing it.

Dr. Archie sat down in the rocking-chair. “And how’s Thea feeling to-day?”

He was quite as shy as his patient, especially when a third person overheard his conversation. Big and handsome and superior to his fellow townsmen as Dr. Archie was, he was seldom at his ease, and like Peter Kronborg he often dodged behind a professional manner. There was sometimes a contraction of embarrassment and self-consciousness all over his big body, which made him awkward—likely to stumble, to kick up rugs, or to knock over chairs. If any one was very sick, he forgot himself, but he had a clumsy touch in convalescent gossip.

Thea curled up on her side and looked at him with pleasure. “All right. I like to be sick. I have more fun then than other times.”

“How’s that?”

“I don’t have to go to school, and I don’t have to practice. I can read all I want to, and have good things,”—she patted the grapes. “I had lots of fun that time I mashed my finger and you wouldn’t let Professor Wunsch make me practice. Only I had to do left hand, even then. I think that was mean.”

The doctor took her hand and examined the forefinger, where the nail had grown back a little crooked. “You mustn’t trim it down close at the corner there, and then it will grow straight. You won’t want it crooked when you’re a big girl and wear rings and have sweethearts.”

She made a mocking little face at him and looked at his new scarf-pin. “That’s the prettiest one you ev-er had. I wish you’d stay a long while and let me look at it. What is it?”

Dr. Archie laughed. “It’s an opal. Spanish Johnny brought it up for me from Chihuahua in his shoe. I had it set in Denver, and I wore it to-day for your benefit.”

Thea had a curious passion for jewelry. She wanted every shining stone she saw, and in summer she was always going off into the sand hills to hunt for crystals and agates and bits of pink chalcedony. She had two cigar boxes full of stones that she had found or traded for, and she imagined that they were of enormous value. She was always planning how she would have them set.

“What are you reading?” The doctor reached under the covers and pulled out a book of Byron’s poems. “Do you like this?”

She looked confused, turned over a few pages rapidly, and pointed to “My native land, good-night.” “That,” she said sheepishly.

“How about ‘Maid of Athens’?”

She blushed and looked at him suspiciously. “I like ‘There was a sound of revelry,’ ” she muttered.

The doctor laughed and closed the book. It was clumsily bound in padded leather and had been presented to the Reverend Peter Kronborg by his Sunday-School class as an ornament for his parlor table.

“Come into the office some day, and I’ll lend you a nice book. You can skip the parts you don’t understand. You can read it in vacation. Perhaps you’ll be able to understand all of it by then.”

Thea frowned and looked fretfully toward the piano. “In vacation I have to practice four hours every day, and then there’ll be Thor to take care of.” She pronounced it “Tor.”

“Thor? Oh, you’ve named the baby Thor?” exclaimed the doctor.

Thea frowned again, still more fiercely, and said quickly, “That’s a nice name, only maybe it’s a little—old-fashioned.” She was very sensitive about being thought a foreigner, and was proud of the fact that, in town, her father always preached in English: very bookish English, at that, one might add.

Born in an old Scandinavian colony in Minnesota, Peter Kronborg had been sent to a small divinity school in Indiana by the women of a Swedish evangelical mission, who were convinced of his gifts and who skimped and begged and gave church suppers to get the long, lazy youth through the seminary. He could still speak enough Swedish to exhort and to bury the members of his country church out at Copper Hole, and he wielded in his Moonstone pulpit a somewhat pompous English vocabulary he had learned out of books at college. He always spoke of “the infant Saviour,” “our Heavenly Father,” etc. The poor man had no natural, spontaneous human speech. If he had his sincere moments, they were perforce inarticulate. Probably a good deal of his pretentiousness was due to the fact that he habitually expressed himself in a book-learned language, wholly remote from anything personal, native, or homely. Mrs. Kronborg spoke Swedish to her own sisters and to her sister-in-law Tillie, and colloquial English to her neighbors. Thea, who had a rather sensitive ear, until she went to school never spoke at all, except in monosyllables, and her mother was convinced that she was tongue-tied. She was still inept in speech for a child so intelligent. Her ideas were usually clear, but she seldom attempted to explain them, even at school, where she excelled in “written work” and never did more than mutter a reply.

“Your music professor stopped me on the street to-day and asked me how you were,” said the doctor, rising. “He’ll be sick himself, trotting around in this slush with no overcoat or overshoes.”

“He’s poor,” said Thea simply.

The doctor sighed. “I’m afraid he’s worse than that. Is he always all right when you take your lessons? Never acts as if he’d been drinking?”

Thea looked angry and spoke excitedly. “He knows a lot. More than anybody. I don’t care if he does drink; he’s old and poor.” Her voice shook a little.

Mrs. Kronborg spoke up from the next room. “He’s a good teacher, doctor. It’s good for us he does drink. He’d never be in a little place like this if he didn’t have some weakness. These women that teach music around here don’t know nothing. I wouldn’t have my child wasting time with them. If Professor Wunsch goes away, Thea’ll have nobody to take from. He’s careful with his scholars; he don’t use bad language. Mrs. Kohler is always present when Thea takes her lesson. It’s all right.” Mrs. Kronborg spoke calmly and judicially. One could see that she had thought the matter out before.

“I’m glad to hear that, Mrs. Kronborg. I wish we could get the old man off his bottle and keep him tidy. Do you suppose if I gave you an old overcoat you could get him to wear it?” The doctor went to the bedroom door and Mrs. Kronborg looked up from her darning.

“Why, yes, I guess he’d be glad of it. He’ll take most anything from me. He won’t buy clothes, but I guess he’d wear ‘em if he had’em. I’ve never had any clothes to give him, having so many to make over for.”

“I’ll have Larry bring the coat around to-night. You aren’t cross with me, Thea?” taking her hand.

Thea grinned warmly. “Not if you give Professor Wunsch a coat—and things,” she tapped the grapes significantly. The doctor bent over and kissed her.

III

BEING SICK was all very well, but Thea knew from experience that starting back to school again was attended by depressing difficulties. One Monday morning she got up early with Axel and Gunner, who shared her wing room, and hurried into the back living-room, between the dining-room and the kitchen. There, beside a soft-coal stove, the younger children of the family undressed at night and dressed in the morning. The older daughter, Anna, and the two big boys slept upstairs, where the rooms were theoretically warmed by stovepipes from below. The first (and the worst!) thing that confronted Thea was a suit of clean, prickly red flannel, fresh from the wash. Usually the torment of breaking in a clean suit of flannel came on Sunday, but yesterday, as she was staying in the house, she had begged off. Their winter underwear was a trial to all the children, but it was bitterest to Thea because she happened to have the most sensitive skin. While she was tugging it on, her Aunt Tillie brought in warm water from the boiler and filled the tin pitcher. Thea washed her face, brushed and braided her hair, and got into her blue cashmere dress. Over this she buttoned a long apron, with sleeves, which would not be removed until she put on her cloak to go to school. Gunner and Axel, on the soap box behind the stove, had their usual quarrel about which should wear the tightest stockings, but they exchanged reproaches in low tones, for they were wholesomely afraid of Mrs. Kronborg’s rawhide whip. She did not chastise her children often, but she did it thoroughly. Only a somewhat stern system of discipline could have kept any degree of order and quiet in that overcrowded house.

Mrs. Kronborg’s children were all trained to dress themselves at the earliest possible age, to make their own beds,—the boys as well as the girls,—to take care of their clothes, to eat what was given them, and to keep out of the way. Mrs. Kronborg would have made a good chess-player; she had a head for moves and positions.

Anna, the elder daughter, was her mother’s lieutenant. All the children knew that they must obey Anna, who was an obstinate contender for proprieties and not always fair-minded. To see the young Kronborgs headed for Sunday-School was like watching a military drill. Mrs. Kronborg let her children’s minds alone. She did not pry into their thoughts or nag them. She respected them as individuals, and outside of the house they had a great deal of liberty. But their communal life was definitely ordered.

In the winter the children breakfasted in the kitchen; Gus and Charley and Anna first, while the younger children were dressing. Gus was nineteen and was a clerk in a dry-goods store. Charley, eighteen months younger, worked in a feed store. They left the house by the kitchen door at seven o’clock, and then Anna helped her Aunt Tillie get the breakfast for the younger ones. Without the help of this sister-in-law. Tillie Kronborg, Mrs. Kronborg’s life would have been a hard one. Mrs. Kronborg often reminded Anna that “no hired help would ever have taken the same interest.”

Mr. Kronborg came of a poorer stock than his wife; from a lowly, ignorant family that had lived in a poor part of Sweden. His great-grandfather had gone to Norway to work as a farm laborer and had married a Norwegian girl. This strain of Norwegian blood came out somewhere in each generation of the Kronborgs. The intemperance of one of Peter Kronborg’s uncles, and the religious mania of another, had been alike charged to the Norwegian grandmother. Both Peter Kronborg and his sister Tillie were more like the Norwegian root of the family than like the Swedish, and this same Norwegian strain was strong in Thea, though in her it took a very different character.

Tillie was a queer, addle-pated thing, as flighty as a girl at thirty-five, and overweeningly fond of gay clothes—which taste, as Mrs. Kronborg philosophically said, did nobody any harm. Tillie was always cheerful, and her tongue was still for scarcely a minute during the day. She had been cruelly overworked on her father’s Minnesota farm when she was a young girl, and she had never been so happy as she was now; had never before, as she said, had such social advantages. She thought her brother the most important man in Moonstone. She never missed a church service, and, much to the embarrassment of the children, she always “spoke a piece” at the Sunday-School concerts. She had a complete set of “Standard Recitations,” which she conned on Sundays. This morning, when Thea and her two younger brothers sat down to breakfast, Tillie was remonstrating with Gunner because he had not learned a recitation assigned to him for George Washington Day at school. The un-memorized text lay heavily on Gunner’s conscience as he attacked his buckwheat cakes and sausage. He knew that Tillie was in the right, and that “when the day came he would be ashamed of himself.”

“I don’t care,” he muttered, stirring his coffee; “they oughtn’t to make boys speak. It’s all right for girls. They like to show off.”

“No showing off about it. Boys ought to like to speak up for their country. And what was the use of your father buying you a new suit, if you’re not going to take part in anything?”

“That was for Sunday-School. I’d rather wear my old one, anyhow. Why didn’t they give the piece to Thea?” Gunner grumbled.

Tillie was turning buckwheat cakes at the griddle. “Thea can play and sing, she don’t need to speak. But you’ve got to know how to do something, Gunner, that you have. What are you going to do when you git big and want to git into society, if you can’t do nothing? Everybody’ll say, ‘Can you sing? Can you play? Can you speak? Then git right out of society.’ An’ that’s what they’ll say to you, Mr. Gunner.”

Gunner and Axel grinned at Anna, who was preparing her mother’s breakfast. They never made fun of Tillie, but they understood well enough that there were subjects upon which her ideas were rather foolish. When Tillie struck the shallows, Thea was usually prompt in turning the conversation.

“Will you and Axel let me have your sled at recess?” she asked.

“All the time?” asked Gunner dubiously.

“I’ll work your examples for you to-night, if you do.”

“Oh, all right. There’ll be a lot of’em.”

“I don’t mind, I can work’em fast. How about yours, Axel?”

Axel was a fat little boy of seven, with pretty, lazy blue eyes. “I don’t care,” he murmured, buttering his last buckwheat cake without ambition; “too much trouble to copy’em down. Jenny Smiley’ll let me have hers.”

The boys were to pull Thea to school on their sled, as the snow was deep. The three set off together. Anna was now in the high school, and she no longer went with the family party, but walked to school with some of the older girls who were her friends, and wore a hat, not a hood like Thea.

IV

AND IT WAS SUMMER, beautiful Summer!” Those were the closing words of Thea’s favorite fairy tale, and she thought of them as she ran out into the world one Saturday morning in May, her music book under her arm. She was going to the Kohlers’ to take her lesson, but she was in no hurry.

What People are Saying About This

Vivian Gornick
Cather makes a great romance of the loneliness of the artist's vocation.
Leon Edel
The time will come when she will be ranked above Hemingway.

Meet the Author

Born in Virginia, Willa Cather (1873–1948) moved with her family to Nebraska before she was ten. She graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895, then taught high school and worked for the Pittsburgh Leader before being appointed associate editor of McClure’s Magazine. Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, in 1912. In O Pioneers! (1913), she turned to her greatest subject, immigrant life on the Nebraska prairies, and established herself as a major American novelist. O Pioneers! was followed by other novels, including My Ántonia (1918), The Professor’s House (1922), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Melissa Homestead is the Susan J. Rosowski Professor of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is the author of American Women Authors and Literary Property, 1822–1869, and with Guy Reynolds is coeditor of Willa Cather and Modern Cultures.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
December 7, 1873
Date of Death:
April 27, 1947
Place of Birth:
Winchester, Virginia
Place of Death:
New York, New York
Education:
B.A., University of Nebraska, 1895

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The Song Of The Lark: 100th Anniversary Edition 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Song of the Lark is a classic and although it is long and at times, difficult to read because of the descriptions of settings, it is a book that profoundly effected me. It is the story of an artist and who she is, what she has to do to become an artist, and what she draws on to create her art. It is insightful and intriguing. You are drawn into the novel and at times, you might want to leave it because it is demanding to read, but stay with it, the passages describing Thea's heart and mind are brilliant and thought provoking. In light of what we have read and learned about the writer, the book takes on an even deeper meaning. Well worth the visit to the past.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago