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Spring 2006

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Immersed in Her World: The 2005 International Cather Seminar in Red Cloud

It could have turned violent. Over 130 Willa Cather scholars and enthusiasts were converging in Red Cloud and most of them wanted to stay in the town's one motel or two bed and breakfasts. Reservations were first come, first served and those who weren't quick enough . . . well, they could have been left to squabble and shove over any decent spot in the park to sleep. Fortunately for us, the town's residents opened their homes and invited us to stay inside. At first, I felt awkward sleeping in a stranger's house with the front door unlocked, showering in a stranger's bathroom, and helping myself to breakfast in their kitchen. But Gary and Bev were terrific hosts-gracious and engaging-and I soon felt at ease. A day after we arrived, one of those lucky few who won a reservation at the motel left his coveted room and joined us at Gary and Bev's house where he found it easier to breathe.

The theme for the 2005 International Cather Seminar was "Violence, the Arts, and Cather," but one of my strongest memories from the Seminar is the kindness I found in Red Cloud. Residents opened their homes and quickly became friends instead of strangers. The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial welcomed everyone with enthusiasm, provided tours, and became the hub of Seminar activity. Cather scholars, both veteran and novice, listened to each other and offered kind, constructive advice. Expected and unexpected guests so intimately connected with Cather, such as her nephew and Annie Pavelka's granddaughter, were willing and eager to share Cather's world with all of us.

An important part of Cather's world was Red Cloud. Although she escaped rural Nebraska while still a teenager, Cather never escaped the memories of the pioneer town and the immigrants who settled and worked the surrounding fields. She painted images of her memories with words. To visit Red Cloud and the surrounding area is to step into her word-paintings and become part of their living and breathing reality.

When I arrived in Red Cloud, my first priority was to visit Cather's childhood home. My husband and I had missed the walking tour, but we fortunately caught the tail-end of it. "They're upstairs," we were told, so we rushed through the front room, hurried past the "cluttered, hideous room" of Grandma Boak and Old Mrs. Harris, and located the stairs leading up from the kitchen. At the top of the stairs, I found myself in a Cather word-painting. To my left was Thea Kronberg's room just as Cather described it in The Song of the Lark: "The ceiling was so low that a grown person could reach it with the palm of the hand, and it sloped down on either side. There was only one window, but it was a double one and went to the floor" (51). The faded wallpaper was the same "small red and brown roses on a yellowish background" that Thea and Tillie-and Cather-had pasted. If I had been allowed inside the room, I could have stood upright in the center but would have needed to stoop to maneuver from side to side. I was too tall at five-feet-two-inches, but the room was the perfect size for a child desiring a space of her own.

I stepped into many other word-paintings during my stay in Red Cloud. The Depot's platform brought to mind Benda's drawing of the Shimerda family, newly arrived and clinging to their only possessions. After my paper presentation on Sunday, I walked along a residential street chatting with a fellow graduate student about Ferris Greenslet and Houghton Mifflin. When my companion left to return to her room at a bed and breakfast, I realized I was walking the same road as Jim Burden. As I walked that road, families in the homes I passed fired up their ovens to prepare their evening meals.

On Monday, a surprise guest arrived at the Bladen fairgrounds to hear our plenary speakers. She had been walking along the road, returning home from a store, when a car pulled over and its occupants called her name. I recognized Antonette Willa Skupa Turner, the granddaughter of Annie Pavelka, when she entered the picnic area. I had met her once before when she gave her "My Babicka Ántonia" talk in Lincoln, so I went over to say hello. She took hold of my arm, looked up into my eyes, and said, "Oh yes, Erika, I remember you. I remember telling you stories of my grandmother's quilts." Antonette inherited many quilts and artifacts, but she also inherited her grandmother's vivacity and love for life. As I spoke with her, I felt like I was in the presence of Ántonia herself.

I felt another presence during the International Seminar. Monday was "Susan Rosowski Day" and I could not help but remember that she is the reason I study Willa Cather. When I met Sue, I was a creative writing graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. My decision to take her Cather seminar was simply motivated by the promised field trip to Red Cloud-a field trip I never took due to tornadoes and job opportunities and a research trip to Indian Cave. I missed all three chances to visit Red Cloud with Sue, but I felt her presence as I listened to Seminar papers and keynotes, as I walked the streets of Red Cloud, and as I stood by the locked doors to Ántonia's cave, gazing over the mound toward the dusty country road.

"Isn't this just wonderful," I could hear Sue say, and I wanted to tell her that, yes, it was quite wonderful to talk Cather with other scholars and students while being immersed in this part of her world.


Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Mariner Books. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.