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Some personal favorites

Review by Lynda La Rocca

Literature – January 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

I’M PROBABLY THE LAST PERSON in the world to catch on to the fact that Willa Cather was an incredible writer. A friend who has never traveled outside New England has urged me for years to read Cather’s works. She rhapsodizes over Cather’s glorious depictions of the great American prairie during its transition from a magnificent ocean of grass into a platted, plowed, and planted landscape of farm communities built on the backs of bewildered yet hopeful immigrants. And now I understand why my friend feels this way.

On the surface, My Ántonia, originally published in 1918, is simply a series of narrator Jim Burden’s recollections of his childhood neighbor and playmate, Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian girl whose family makes Nebraska their home, with varying degrees of success. But it’s also a delicate and exquisitely told love story encompassing Jim’s quiet, lifelong affection for Ántonia, and his profound connections to the seasons, the land, and the people whose joys and sorrows help color and shape each others’ destinies.

Cather describes her characters dispassionately, as in this portrait of a woman who is:

” … almost a giantess in height, raw-boned, with iron-grey hair, a face always flushed, and prominent, hysterical eyes…. Her teeth were long and curved, like a horse’s; people said babies always cried if she smiled at them.”

Cather is also unflinching regarding the tragedies that have befallen the people of the prairie. A graphic recollection of the fate of a Russian bridal party traveling through the winter darkness plumbs the depths of humanity’s age-old fear of wolves. In contrast, her descriptions of the Nebraska countryside are as soothing as warm milk before bedtime:

“The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass … Everything was as it should be: the strong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue and gold of the sky, the evening star, the purr of the milk into the pails…”

First-time novelist Alice Sebold also has a feel for the land, but her land is an underground chamber of horrors that becomes the setting for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl.

Susie Salmon is both the victim and the narrator of The Lovely Bones, a strange, compelling, yet somehow comforting novel of understanding, acceptance, compassion, and hope. From her vantage point in a heaven that is as individualistic as a fingerprint, a heaven in which God is never even mentioned, Susie recalls the agonizing details of her own death, explores her new environment with help from a former social worker who is now a celestial “intake counselor,” and watches life on Earth continue without her.

As weeks, months, then years, pass without the discovery of either Susie’s killer or her body (other than a single bone unearthed by a neighborhood dog), Susie watches her parents’ marriage disintegrate, follows her younger siblings’ attempts to cope with her loss, and observes her murderer going about his hideous and pathetic existence. (I’m not giving anything away by revealing that the culprit is a neighbor who, unbeknownst to surrounding residents, is also a serial killer.)

“It was no longer a Susie-fest on Earth,” Susie notes wryly as survivors move on with their lives. The Lovely Bones is truly one of the oddest, most touching and memorable novels I’ve ever read.

THE GREAT PLAINS are the setting once again for Grass Heart, a slim novel by M.M.B. Walsh which follows the life of the title character, a Mandan princess whose village is devastated by a smallpox epidemic. Drawing on historical realities — the Mandan really were nearly destroyed by smallpox in 1837 — Walsh confidently and accurately recreates Native American life on the Plains, from marriage and burial customs to the Sioux penchant for kidnapping members of other tribes and forcing them into slavery.

She also neatly captures the white man’s utter contempt and disregard for native customs and traditions at a moment in time when these same Anglo invaders were poised to overcome the last pockets of native resistance.

Smallpox is a perfect metaphor for this conquest. Its appearance, unwittingly carried into the village on a length of beautiful red cloth, illustrates the insidious nature of both the disease and the destruction of an entire culture. Walsh touches a contemporary nerve, too, given the current fear of bioterrorism and the controversy over reviving a national smallpox vaccination program.

I’ve written before of my love for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And given the recent movie premiere of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, based on the second book in the series, I have to mention this book as another delightful journey into Harry’s magical world of adventures.

Granted, this was my least favorite in what is to date a four-book series (out of a planned seven books). But that’s only because Rowling spent too much time re-explaining details and events that were covered in the first book.

And Chamber of Secrets features one of the most narcissistic, pompous characters ever to stumble into the pages of fantasy fiction — Gilderoy Lockhart, an abysmally inept and hilariously unconscious Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Lockhart is proof that even the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is not immune from the Peter Principle, the observation that employees tend to rise to the level of their own incompetence.

Lynda La Rocca reads and writes in Twin Lakes.