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Reviews don’t do justice to Cather book

December 20, 2018

Willa Cather is one of our most recognized and beloved Nebraska authors. I’ve discussed two of her novels in this column in previous years. The first was her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “One of Ours,” and the second was one of her most famous books, “O Pioneers!” Many readers recognize these titles as well as her “My Antonia” novel, but unless you happen to be a Cather connoisseur, you may not be able to name any of her other books despite her renown.

I really couldn’t either before I stumbled upon “The Professor’s House” this summer while I was browsing for books in the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. I’ll even admit that initially I didn’t even pick it up, but as I circled the store, I found myself thinking about its title, which had piqued my interest. So, I returned to the Cather section and grabbed the book.

It’s a slender tome, and the cover of the 1990 Vintage Classics Edition that I now own is simple, yet eye-catching. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a pretty book, especially if it’s a well-written novel by a world-renowned author.

The premise of the story is quite simplistic actually – a college professor, nearing retirement age, and his wife have moved into a new house, but the professor can’t bring himself to abandon his musty top-floor writing room in the old house; so he doesn’t.

Along the way, the reader gets to know his wife and his two daughters and with their husbands, and there is a separate (yet related) story about an old student of his.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like an exciting, thrill-a-minute story. Well, it isn’t. For that reason, many readers don’t want to waste time reading Cather’s work. In fact, I read a few reader reviews on Goodreads that really slammed this book; however, those people are missing the point.

This novel is quite simply a work of art. The sentences are beautifully constructed, and Cather paints a perfectly formed picture of Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s life. She gives us this man to both admire and to pity – just as we both admire and pity the very people we love in our own lives.

When St. Peter says, “Life doesn’t turn out for any of us as we plan,” we all nod our heads in understanding. When he contemplates his retirement and his impending old age and says, “I’ve put a great deal behind me, where I can’t go back to it again – and I don’t really wish to go back. The way would be too long and too fatiguing,” those of us facing our own retirement and impending old age nod our heads in understanding.

And when Cather writes, “All the most important things in his life, St. Peter sometimes reflected, had been determined by chance,” those of us who ponder upon the serendipitous events in our own lives recognize the absolute truth in that statement as we nod our heads in understanding.

The entire short novel is rife with deep insights – with the stuff of philosophers and common thinkers alike. I put it in higher esteem than the two novels Cather is best-known for writing yet one slot below her “One of Ours” prize-winning book.

Cather managed to speak to the heart and souls of people everywhere through her writing, so her worldwide popularity is well-deserved, yet we Nebraskans are fortunate to be able to claim her as one of ours.

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Next month’s reading selection is “The Keepers of the House” by Shirley Ann Grau.

Contact Marshall at tamreader@gmail.com

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