Willa Cather is known for her honest portrayals of pioneer life: life
on the prairie and the extreme hardships through which early Americans suffered. While not all of these stories
take place out west, they do have something in common: All center around a feeling of not belonging, feeling stuck, dreams unfulfilled. And all of them
involve music and/or religion as a central part of the theme. These are good stories but they are not pretty. They strike a raw
nerve, because they are situations and emotions to which most people can probably relate. They are uncomfortable.
The Enchanted Bluff is about a group of six boys who spend regular time together at a river in Nebraska. It is their uniting force, though they differ in other ways. One evening they all tell where they want to visit. Tip's place is the most fascinating: It is in New Mexico and nearly impossible to reach. Upon a big red rock that went 900 feet into the air, natives had built steps of wood and lived way up at the top. They were a peaceful tribe, and avoided fighting by living on top of the rock. They could kill anyone coming up to attack them. The legend said that one day, while the men were out hunting, a storm hit and destroyed the steps. At the same time, another tribe came along and slaughtered the men at the bottom. The women, children and elders all died of starvation unable to descend. The boys all wanted to see it some day.
The story is told by the narrator, looking back twenty years earlier. They had all gotten tied into jobs, families, and one had died. None of them ever did go visit the rock.
Paul's Case is a very disturbing story about a young man who is always in trouble at school. It begins as he appears before the faculty at Pittsburgh High School, in an attempt to be allowed to resume classes. But he doesn't really want to. That is just one of the many lies that he tells so easily. His whole life is a lie, except when he ushers at Carnegie Hall. Then he does his absolute best. He gets lost in the music, the stage, his role in caring for the patrons.
But after each performance, reality would set in, and he knew he had to return to the dreadfulness of his household. He had become friends with a member of a stock company that performed in local theaters, and hung out there, helping where he could. He had no desire to be on stage, he just wanted to live in his dream world. Eventually he gets permanently expelled from school, and his father prohibits him from ushering, nor can he see his friends at the theater. So he steals some money and runs away. For a couple days, he lives his dream.
A Wagner Matinée tells of a woman who in her younger years was on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory, until she visited the Nebraska frontier, home of her ancestors. Howard Carpenter fell for her, following her back to Boston. She then eloped with him, and now, a quarter of a century later, Howard has written to his nephew that his wife, Georgiana, is returning to Boston on business. A relative has left her something in their will, so, of course, Cark agrees to care for his aunt during her visit. He gets tickets to see a performance of Wagner's works, though he later regrets it. The pain of memories and loss is more than his aunt can bear.
These and two other stories complete this very readable collection.
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