To Mary on your 12th birthday- a book you cannot read. This is a fine book, one of the finest ever written. Someday you will want to read it, but you cannot read it now. Each year as your birthday approaches read the introduction. When you realize how beautifully written this passage is, when Antonia interests you, then read the rest of the story. Enjoy it. Appreciate it. Then My Antonia will be a birthday gift from me. With love, Dad 1994.
Dad was right. That was my twelfth birthday and I didn’t read Antonia for many years until a burning day on a sweltering train from Berlin to Prague and in those hours I became a better person for it. Appreciating Antonia was a milestone for me; it’s now one of my favorite books.
A couple of years ago, on the way from New Mexico to Michigan, I stopped in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather’s childhood hometown. The Cather family moved to Nebraska from Virginia when Willa was 9 years old. After a hard, hungry 18 months at a sod house homestead, the family of nine moved to a small house in the tiny town of Red Cloud, an experience which later inspired My Antonia,.
Red Cloud is a pretty typical Midwest town, with a beautifully historic red brick Main Street that’s all but vacant. One of the only active buildings is the Willa Cather Foundation, a bookstore, and a small museum that shows a video about Willa Cather’s life and work on a loop. I believe they also give tours of her childhood home, but not on the day I was there.
To see the land that inspired Willa, I headed south of town to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, a tract of Native prairie near where her family spent 18 months trying to scratch a living from the land.
I visited on a gusty, blustery, windy day and so I did what I always do when I hike in the wind: I run! The dogs and I ran across Willa’s prairie until we were out of sight of the road, then I lay in the grass for a long time and listened to it singing in the wind.
Eventually, I got up, ran back to the car and drove a few miles south, over the Kansas state line to the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States.
I’ve been to the southernmost point in the U.S. (Key West, Florida) the easternmost point (Quoddy Head, Maine) northwesternmost point (Cape Flattery, Washington) and now, the absolute dead center. I’m glad it’s in Cather Country.