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The Song of the Lark. Willa Cather. originally published in 1915. For this review I used: Early Novels and Stories. Library of America. New York. 1987. pp. 291 – 706.

b7864763c8b7f89da30ba6e7bfb3beb0The Song of the Lark was the middle volume of Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy. In many ways, it’s surprising that it should be book-ended between O’ Pioneers and My Antonia. Where those two books were both set in Nebraska and firmly planted in the pioneer farmer tradition, Lark begins in a railroad town on the northeastern Colorado sand plains. And the central character, a prairie girl at heart, is no farmer; she’s an aspiring artist. While the telling of Alexandra Bergson’s and Antonia Swoboda’s stories are spare, straightforward and deeply rooted in the prairie, Thea Kronborg’s story develops much more slowly with many more words, characters, settings and drama. Of course, Kronborg is destined to become a world-famous opera star, so it hardly seems inappropriate to take her to Chicago, New York and Dresden.

Kronborg is also a more complex person, at times amazingly self-centered and ungrateful for the many people who help her along the way. And yet, she grapples throughout the book with questions about what makes an artist and what makes a life. When the reader sees her through this lens, it is easier to accept her seeming self-absorption, perhaps more understandable as a dedication to developing her art, rather than herself. This is a fine distinction I know, and it seemed to me in some places she oversteps. Still, it is a fascinating glimpse of how artists perceive themselves and their “calling.”

To me, this is one of Cather’s finer books, in part because she is using a different style than her trademark spare prose with little expressed emotion. And yet, while we readers may feel we know these characters more deeply than some of her others—making it feel perhaps recognizable as a more standard novelistic style—I still come away with that sense that Cather has remained firmly in control her words, adroitly telling the reader this remarkable story in exactly the way it should be told.

“Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, know how difficult it is.”

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