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“Are the prairies all that people think of?” A local librarian and I wondered this, as we searched for picture books about the Midwest.
“No! I don’t want to study about Nebraska. It’s all just football.” My students protested, when I informed them of my decision for us to read Nebraska fiction.
This month, my students and I are reading fiction set in Nebraska. When it comes to what’s available in my local library, I could find only a handful of books. My search was eye-opening to me. Outsiders who write about the Midwest tend to set their stories in the past when prairie grass stretched as far as eye could see, while those from Nebraska don’t seem to write much about their state–not even to promote football.
Yet there were exceptions:
- Two picture books by a modern author depicted various other aspects of Midwest life. Later this month, my students will review C is for Cornhusker and Nebraska Numbers and interview the author Rajean Shepherd.
- I found three juvenile authors for a total of five books. Two of the authors wrote about frontier life or farms and about storms. The third wrote about small towns.
- For my own reading of Nebraska fiction, I turned to young adult novels. Here, I also discovered a few examples of authors who wrote about the Midwest that they directly knew, whether about pioneers of old, natives in transition, or even today’s at-risk kids.
For my reviews of Nebraska fiction, I discovered to start with the classics: A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich and My Antonia by Willa Cather. Both of these books are labelled as young adult, making them suitable for me to review here at Allison’s Book Bag. In subsequent weeks, I’ll review juvenile books and post reviews by my students of two picture books. You can compile your own reading list by turning to The Nebraska Room of Nebraska Authors.
Bess Streeter Aldrich: Who is Bess Streeter Aldrich? Until I moved to Nebraska, I’d never heard of this Midwest author. Her book A Lantern in Her Hand is one of the books I’ll review this week.
Originally from Iowa, Aldrich was born February 1881 to the last of eight children born to James and Mary Streeter. A writer since childhood, her native city of Cedar Falls provided a wealth of material for the plot and setting of much of her fiction. After graduating from the University of Northern Iowa, like many writers, Aldrich taught at various schools.
In 1906, she married Charles Sweetzer Aldrich. They moved to Elmwood, Nebraska, where the couple invested in the American Exchange Bank along with her sister and a brother-in-law. Although Aldrich made several trips to New York and California, Nebraska remained her home for the remainder of her life. Small town folk and the Midwest prairie served as her writing inspiration.
After Aldrich moved in 1845 to Lincoln, Nebraska, to be near her daughter and her daughter’s family, Aldrich did comparatively little writing. She died at the age of seventy-three and was buried beside her husband in the Elmwood Cemetery. Her legacy of fiction remains, continuing to fulfill her hope that as future generations read her work they will understand the joys and struggles that were all a part of pioneering in the Midwest. In 1873, Aldrich was named into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
To sample a taste of Aldrich’s writing, check out: Why I Live in a Small Town. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about her writing career.
“Regardless of the popular literary trend of the times, write the thing which lies close to your heart.” As long ago as 1928, Bess Streeter Aldrich offered this advice to aspiring writers, when she reflected upon A Lantern in Her Hand continued to make new friends every year.
Bess Streeter Aldrich started out with a dream of becoming a writer and ultimately found herself forced to use her pen to survive. By the ages of fourteen and seventeen, Aldrich had already won two writing prizes. In 1911 she saw a fiction contest announcement in the Ladies Home Journal and wrote while her baby napped. After her story was one of six chosen from among some two thousand entries, Aldrich turned to writing whenever she could find a moment between caring for her growing family and her household chores.
In May 1925, shortly before her second book was published, her husband died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Aldrich a widow with four children ranging from four to sixteen. Her writing now became the means of family support; with her pen she put all the children through college. Her stories often concerned Midwestern pioneer history and were very popular with teenage girls and young women. They became as eagerly sought and read as her novels, quickly making her one of the best paid magazine writers of the time.
Aldrich was the author of about 200 short stories and thirteen novels, including Miss Bishop. The latter novel was made into a movie “Cheers for Miss Bishop” (1941), which premiered in Nebraska.
Here, at Allison’s Book Bag, I will be reviewing A Lantern in Her Hand. Because of how much this book resembles Aldrich’s biographical life, I also researched the origins of this novel. To my surprise, Aldrich not only drew on experiences of her mother and herself to write A Lantern in Her Hand, but also on the dozens of anecdotes received after she gave a give a talk over the radio about pioneer life. You can read Aldrich’s own account in a reprint by Project Gutenberg. It will impress you!
Willa Cather: I knew Willa Cather’s fame even as a young adult in Newfoundland, Canada. She was most familiar to me as the author of My Antonia, the other young adult book I’ll review this weekend.
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Like Aldrich, Cather moved to Nebraska when only a child. Cather’s father tried his hand at farming for eighteen months, but eventually moved the family into the town of Red Cloud to open a real estate and insurance business. Also, like Aldrich, Nebraska’s frontier was a formative experience. Cather was effected by the dramatic environment and weather, along with the various cultures of the immigrant and Native American families in the area.
Graduating from Red Cloud High School in 1890, Cather moved to the state capitol of Lincoln to study for entrance at the University of Nebraska. At this time, Cather was interested in studying medicine. In Red Cloud, she had spent time with and learned from a local doctor, and she dreamed of becoming a physician. After Cather’s essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal during her freshman year, she rethought her career plans. She became a regular contributor to the Journal, acted in a number of college plays, and graduated in 1894 with a B.A. in English.
A year after her graduation in 1895, an offer to become a newspaper editor led her to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she also pursued her love of music and concerts. While in Pittsburgh, Cather also served as a high school teacher. The months off in the summer allowed her to travel to France in 1902 with Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a prominent local judge who had become her best supporter and lifelong friend. At age thirty-three, Cather moved to New York for the rest of her adult life and writing career.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about her writing career. To read more about Cather herself, check out this tribute by a student from Six Rivers Charter High School.
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Cather’s first story collection garnered her a job offer from the editorial staff of McClure’s magazine, one of the most widely read magazines of the day. Cather moved to New York and, during her first year at McClure’s, she wrote a critical biography of Christian Science founder: Mary Baker Eddy. While Georgina Milmine’s name appears as co-author both in serial and book form—she provided enormous amounts of research— Cather was the principal writer of the biography. During her time at McClure’s, Cather also served as managing editor and met Sara Orne Jewett, a woman from Maine who inspired her to later write about Nebraska. In 1912, after five years with McClure’s, Cather left the magazine to have time for her own writing.
The year Cather left, McClure’s serialized Cather’s first novel. She followed Alexander’s Bridge with her Prairie Trilogy: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918). These novels received both popular and critical successes. Cather became firmly established as a major American writer, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her novel One of Ours. I’ll review one standalone novel in this trilogy, My Antonia, at Allison’s Book Bag.
By the 1930s, just as had happened to Lucy Maud Montgomery, critics began to dismiss Cather as a writer who failed to confront realistic contemporary life but instead escaped into an idealized past. Whether burdened by this negative criticism of her work or from the death of family members and good friend Isabelle McClung, Cather became reclusive. She burned letters and to this day her will forbids publication of those which survived.
I found it particularly interesting to read about the writing influences on Cather. She generally preferred past literary masters to contemporary writers. Some particular favorites were Dickens, Balzac, Emerson, Flaubert, Hawthorne, Thackeray, and Tolstoy. While Cather enjoyed the novels of George Eliot, the Brontës, and Jane Austen, she regarded most women writers with disdain, judging them overly sentimental. One contemporary exception was Sarah Orne Jewett, who became Cather’s friend and mentor. Jewett advised Cather to use female narrators in her fiction, but Cather preferred to write from a male point of view. Jewett also inspired her to write about the people and experiences which had stayed in her mind. Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to Jewett.