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Willa Cather is perhaps best known for her "Prairie Trilogy,"
written between 1913 and 1918, which tell of the brutal lives of settlers in the American Midwest. My personal favorite, however, is Death Comes for the
Archbishop, about the creation of the Catholic Diocese in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Cather's specialty was historical novels, and though some critics dismissed
her later as a "romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present," (according to Wikipedia), her books still sold well. And while this
present novel, the last one completed before her death, may not be considered great literature for the time period (1940), it is certainly a great story
which held my attention. I would have read it much faster if I didn't have to charge my tablet periodically, which is the only thing about eBooks I think is
really a pain in the butt. You may read reviews of all Cather's books I have read so far on her
As you may have guessed by the title, the novel is about the Old South before the Civil War. It is told in the third person, an unidentified narrator who turns out to be a child, perhaps Cather herself, retelling the stories she had heard. It takes place in Back Creek, Virginia, near Winchester, where Cather was born, and is based on some of the tales she did hear from her parents, or at least, she found their names fascinating, which she states at the beginning. The entire story, except for the epilogue, takes place in 1856.
Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert is the mistress of the house. She is now in her older age, an invalid from dropsy. She originally came from a well-to-do family which owned slaves, and many thought she married beneath her. Henry Colbert's family were immigrants (because they did not come from the British Isles). At age twenty-four, and still single when her two older sisters were already married, she agreed to the marriage. They moved to a tract of land owned by her family, which was now hers. It had a mill, which they rebuilt, and Henry established himself as an honest, caring, and trusted miller and neighbor. Though the couple had differences, such as their religion, and their opinion on slavery, they had what might be called a "comfortable" marriage. In the later years, Henry spent little time at home, often sleeping at his mill quarters.
They had only a few domestic and other slaves, all brought from the Dodderidge household. They are treated like family, and I would like to think there were households like that in reality, although obviously slavery is wrong under any conditions. That was pretty much the opinion of Henry, who would have freed them all, except that they were Sapphira's
At the time the story begins, Sapphira is in advanced stages of dropsy, and an invalid. Till is her trusted domestic, who was trained by the Dodderidge family, and is now in charge of everything in the house. Nancy is Till's Mulatto daughter, who had been a favorite with Sapphira. But something has changed, and Sapphira has turned on her. There are a couple other slaves who are nosy and nasty troublemakers, too, which doesn't help. One day Mrs. Blake, the Colbert's widowed daughter who lives nearby, arrives unannounced, in time to hear her mother slapping Nancy with a hairbrush. Rachel Blake is like her father more than her mother. She gives away whatever she has to the poor, and is against slavery, too. She attends the local Baptist Church, of which her mother isn't too pleased. She has two little girls, Mary and Betty.
As the story unfolds, we realize the problem with Nancy is that Sapphira believes her husband is attracted to her. But in fact he barely notices her, other than the fact that she does an excellent job at her work, and keeps his mill cabin clean. But the problems really begin when Sapphira invites her husband's rogue nephew, Martin Colbert, who is in gambling debt, along with other troubles. He, however, is charming, and amuses Sapphira. But is it when he begins making advances toward Nancy, and in fact, has plans to rape her, that Henry finally notices what a beautiful young woman she is.
Martin stays and stays, and Nancy's fear grows. She cannot sleep at night because she must stay alert, in case Martin attacks her. She finally cannot tolerate it any longer, and goes to Rachel. While Sapphira, in many ways, has a kind heart, Rachel also knows she has a mean and devious streak, and understands the gravity of the situation.
Through the help of some of her friends, especially the Baptist minister, Reverend Fairhead, a kind and compassionate man, and also an abolitionist, they manage to get Nancy away from her dangerous situation and safely into Canada though the Underground Railroad. Sapphira writes a note to Rachel, telling her she is no longer welcome at their home.
Meanwhile, diphtheria spreads through the area, and Rachel's children become infected. Betty dies, and Sapphira and her mother are reconciled. The Civil War begins, and many are killed from the community.
In the last chapter, the Epilogue, Nancy comes back to visit her old home after a twenty-five year absence. She now works for a wealthy family, and is married to their gardener. They have three children.
I realize this review contains spoilers, which I usually don't include, but there is nothing mysterious about the plot, and we can pretty much guess, anyways, how most of it will turn out. The interest in it is in the telling, the descriptions of the people, and their inner struggles with doing what is right.
In all, it is a very readable story, time well spent. Recommended.
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