Red Cloud, Nebraska is not your normal farm town. There are giants walking around here. I saw them, and I am just an ordinary guy:
— your typical Pondering Piggo who thinks Willa Cather is the best writer in the barnyard,
— who just sinks into her pure visual exact images and deep understanding of human nature with delight,
— your normal pigsty piggo with big tears rolling down his snout because little sixteen year old Leslie Ferguesson caught pneumonia and died out on Mrs. Somebody’s farm when she had her whole life to live in front of her (The Best Years).
— who gets big crinkles of smiles because the twins came in from the yard to fix up Grandma’s sickroom when nobody told them to (Old Mrs. Harris). And, in the same story, when Vickie wins the scholarship to the University of Michigan, what relief! And what subtlety of understanding in that story. How your loyalties shift as Cather reveals the Templeton family first from their neighbor’s perspective, then from the mother’s perspective, then Grandma’s perspective.
— who is not a sentimental sap (ok, maybe I am a sap), but a pig who lets Cather’s true vision translate into his mindscreen and from there percolate into his heart. She took the time to tell it true, folks.
Those stories, plus the pure hometown blues of Song of the Lark (the Red Cloud half, anyway) and the for the ages My Antonia – they all happened in Red Cloud, no matter what name she gives the town in story after story. And Red Cloud, because the railroad’s hub moved to another town, kind of got left behind in the mad American scramble for wealth and status.
So it still looks like Willa Cather’s 1890 town. Walking through it is the strangest experience.
Here’s where Dr. Archie visited Thea when she was deathly sick and slept in the parlor. Through the door you can see the Templeton’s bedroom, where Victoria locked herself in when she learned she was pregnant for the sixth time.
Thea Kronborg’s bedroom where she would lay in bed reading wrapped in blankets with a hot brick at her feet because the air was about minus twenty. No, wait. It’s Leslie Ferguesson’s bedroom where her parents made her sleep because it was only proper that a budding schoolteacher should have her own room. No, wait a minute – it’s Willa Cather’s bedroom papered with the very wallpaper she earned when she was thirteen years old working at the dry goods store and taking wallpaper for wages. It’s not a reasonable facsimile – it’s the same wallpaper she put up about 1886. That’s Red Cloud, Nebraska!
If you like to read the good stuff, and you’ve never read Willa Cather (I was probably fifty before I gave her a try), pick up one of her stories. You could be in for a whole lot of pleasure and mental delight.
And, if you are already a Cather fan, well, there’s a great B&B in Red Cloud called Cather’s Retreat (402-746-2599). The house belonged to the Cather family and Willa stayed there when she came to visit her parents in the Twenties. Hey, go for it. I’m going back as soon as I can.