My Antonia

9781593082024_p0_v3_s114x166book by Willa Cather

annotation by Christin Merwald

I chose to read this book as an example of how to utilize place as force in my work. Cather’s turn-of-the-century Nebraska prairie and its small towns affected tone, plot and characterization in My Antonia. Her vivid, panoramic descriptions of the prairie also created memorable images that stay with the reader long after finishing the book.

We’re introduced to Nebraska with this passage, “There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields…There was nothing but land:  not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” (12) This glimpse of Jim’s new home sets the tone and introduces the book’s plot. Jim’s Nebraska was raw and empty when he first arrived and throughout the story we watch not only him and the other main characters develop into adults, but also the land become inhabited and developed.

Throughout the book Cather uses the changing of seasons to create changes in tone and plot. Jim’s description of spring brings a new feeling of awakening. “When spring came…one could not get enough of the nimble air…There was only—spring itself: the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere; in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted.” (95) Upon this change in season Jim and Antonia begin feeling differently about each other, more independent and less connected. As this spring unfolds the plot unfolds into Antonia becoming a hard working daughter, helping to provide for the family as Jim enjoys the comforts of living in an established farmstead and then in town.

Cather is also able to adjust tone by contrasting prairie passages with town passages. She juxtaposes the difference between winter on the prairie and in a small town at the start of Chapter 7. “On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men’s affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice. But in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk.” (142) She uses setting to develop characters; most notably the hired girls who move from doing arduous work in the country to the city to find work as maids. “The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, uninquiring belief that they were ‘refined,’ and that the country girls, who ‘worked out,’ were not…The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten…One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our county were the first to become prosperous.” (154)

Place not only develops characters in this novel, but becomes a character in some places. For example, “The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing through the big spaces. Each gust, as it bore down, rattled the panes, and swelled off like the others.” (45) Here Cather uses the fierce prairie wind to illustrate the desperation to help and then the sad retreat of the characters that watch illness defeat their friend, Pavel.

Place often plays the role of antagonist in the book. When Jim takes the Shimerda girls on what is supposed to be a fun sleigh ride they quickly learn that the bitter Nebraska winter can be a force to be reckoned with. “…The east wind grew stronger and began to howl; the sun lost its heartening power and the sky became gray and somber…Antonia and I sat erect, but I held the reins clumsily, and my eyes were blinded by the wind a good deal of the time…The next day I came down with an attack of quinsy…I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold. I admired the cheerful zest with which grandmother went about keeping us warm and comfortable and well-fed.” (54) The reader is pulled into many scenes hoping that the characters can overcome the adversity they face on the prairie and we learn quickly that they may not overcome.

My favorite scene is when Jim describes the July heat. “It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odored cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green…The burning sun of those few weeks, with occasional rains at night, secured the corn.” (108) The image Cather creates of the cornfields in July is so imaginative yet so realistic. It is a very accurate portrayal that only one who’s experienced it can know. Her intimate knowledge of the landscape, the feeling of being in a cornfield at that time of year makes for a truly unique and memorable image, which is the case throughout the book.

What I learned from this book was to think of place as a character. How can I use the setting to develop my characters, move the story forward and create adversity? Each description of a character’s surroundings can create a mood or affect on the reader. As I work on my current piece I’m trying to go about scene descriptions very slowly, thinking carefully about what sights, sounds, smells to include and how they can move the story forward. Also, I’m considering where to juxtapose place to accomplish something in the manuscript and where to insert relevant details that establish my characters in time and place in order to place the reader more firmly in the world of my characters. And, finally, I’m trying to incorporate both tight descriptions of place with panoramic views to create sweeping scenes like Cather.

 

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Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

9780312429294

book by Wells Tower

annotation by Lee Stoops

“He considered for a moment the many miles that lay between him and

his own wife, and what it would take to cinch that distance up again.”

~ Wells Tower, “The Brown Coast” from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (17)

His real name is Wells Tower of Power. Like the funk group, he has a signature sound. Tower has enviable ability to deliver a reader from this world into his imagined one. The voices of his narrators are individual, well-rendered, real. The content and delivery of his stories – whether sentimental, blackly comic, or savage – left me taking notes and contriving ideas, all while having a hell of a good time reading. And maybe that’s what struck me with Tower’s book – the fun of it. He’s a remarkable writer, an instinctual storyteller, and a craftsman worthy of study. However, the most important thing to me in finishing his collection was that it was something I enjoyed and lamented ending. It seems rarer and rarer that happens, especially with the growing darkness of contemporary literary fiction. It’s not to say Tower’s collection isn’t imbued with darkness – it’s thick with anger, loss, violence, and fatalism. But, again like Tower of Power, it brought me up and started some good funk brewing in my brain. Because of this, it was easy to identify the elements of his stories that worked for me: the sentiments and perspectives of characters struggling but (in ways) winning, his vocabulary of description and imagery, and dark (in most cases, black) humor.

When I read, I’m on the lookout for characters I can admire. While I might admire the character for who he/she is, what I admire most when I find one is the way the author has given life to someone invented. It’s easy to come up with caricatures or stereotypes or tropes, but it shows real craftsmanship on the writer’s part when a character is familiar enough that I can plug in, yet de-familiar enough that I can’t stop thinking about him/her. Tower, despite sometimes overwriting or explaining his metaphors, loves (and loves to challenge) his characters. Their lives, their mind machinations, their experiences, fights, arguments, emotions fill the pages to the point where the stories themselves don’t matter as much as how the reader comes to know Tower’s people by the end of a story. I’m glad not all short story collections are like this, but if some end up this way, Tower is the guy to do it. Here are some examples of character reality:

Already, I was regretting doing Jane this favor. My mind was wandering. You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up. her belly slumping against the small of you back on a cold morning. The slippery marvel of her soaped up in the shower. A night long ago when you moved on each other so sincerely that you sheared off two quarter-inch lag bolts that held your bed together. But start playing back all the old footage, and pretty soon Mendocino Barry steals into the frame, his bare dark-brindled haunches in your bed, candles and an incense stencher fuming on the nightstand. You can see him tucking a yellow thumbnail under the scalloped elastic of her bikini underpants and shucking them down slow, maybe with a word or two about lotus blossoms. You don’t want to picture how she lifts her hips off the bed, the openmouthed anticipatory shivers, or Barry rearing up in a sun salute between her splayed knees, his tongue lolling like a tiki god in ugly throes (97-98, “Down Through the Valley”).

If you say no to your stepfather when he asks you to drop everything to do some chore, this is known as “lip.” “I’m sick of your lip,” he says, or “I’ve had it with your fucking lip.” He is a thin, delicate man with wire-frame glasses, but neither his slightness nor his way of talking like a corny Hollywood thug makes you any less afraid of him. He has slapped you a few times. Not long ago, you father stopped by to pick you up and your stepfather argued with him. He pushed your father down, and then he picked up a stone the size of a football and made like he was going to throw it at your father’s head. But he just tossed it away and laughed. For many years to come, whenever you think of your father, the image of him cowering on the lawn, his hands clutching his skull in forlorn defense against the crushing stone, will be part of the picture. You are counting the days until you turn sixteen, which you’ve arbitrarily chosen as the age at which you’ll be able to take you stepfather in a fight (117, “Leopard”).

In the above examples, the characters come to life, but there are other ways Tower paints pictures. His images burned into my head and still won’t leave. As a writer, I value that ability above most others. The work a writer does with language to let readers see what the writer values as needing to be seen is one of the great challenges of the craft. It’s also one of the most necessary. Our imaginations rely on memory, and our memories tend to rely on our imaginations, and the emotive responses the writer is counting on from the reader can only become fully realized when the writer does his or her job of empowering the reader to see, remember, and extrapolate meaning by unearthing the roots of the meaning in memory. So, the writer has at his or her disposal words, countless words and combinations, that charge the imagination. Blend them well, and he’s got imagery that brings a story into experience-mode.

Bold as an athlete, she shrugged off her top and pushed her skirt down. Across her breasts and oval hips, her skin looked soft and new and pale as paraffin (17, “The Brown Coast”).

The men stepped back to give Djarf room to work. He placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod’s spine. He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he’d made an incision about a foot long. He paused to wipe sweat from his brow, and made a parallel cut on the other side of the backbone. Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings (229, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).

I spotted my stepmother by the dry fountain, where she was watching some young people make a film. I left my cistern at my father’s feet and jogged to her. Since I’d seen her last, Lucy had reached a new status of tiredness and age. Looking at her, “lady” is what I thought, a word that summed up her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks, her many clattering bracelets and her lipstick, an alarming coral shade leaking into fresh hairline rills around her mouth. Her right eye was bloodshot and brimming with brine. We embraced. All she wore against the chill was a lame’ shawl over a flimsy black top, so thin I could feel the gooseflesh on her hard arms (73, “Executors of Important Energies”).

While Tower’s work is full of other solid linguistic displays and craft examples, I’d rather spend a little bit of time addressing his use of (dark) humor. The stories in the collection are all tragic – death, grief, adultery, violence, grunge and grit and hate. And, I love that stuff, but it also tends to get so heavy in short story collections that the stories usually end up depressing the reader rather than giving the reader perspective for his or her own life/writing. Tower’s stories don’t drag the reader down, even though the fatalism he employs is some of the best contemporary fatalism I can call to mind. It’s the humor, subtle (and often not subtle) that does it – the funny moments or lines or even the delivery of an entire train of thought bring a twisted levity to the stories. And they satisfy.

Derrick came back from the kitchen, talking into a cordless phone, his voice loud with expertise. “Say what? Did you take a look? Can you see the head? Uh-huh. Red or whitish? Yeah, that’s natural. Sounds like she’s getting ready to domino. I’ll be over.”

Derrick came back into the living room. “Gotta take a ride over the bridge,” he said. “Need to go pull something out of a horse’s pussy.”

“What kind of thing?” Bob asked.

“A baby horse, I hope” (11, “The Brown Coast”).

My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear (133, “Door in Your Eye”).

“Hoo,” he said, shaking water from his hair. He jogged in place for a minute, shivered, and then straightened up. “Mercy, that was a spree. Not so much loot to speak of, but a hell of a god-damn spree.” He massaged his thighs and spat a few times. Then he said, “So, you do much killing?”

“Nah,” I said. “Haakon killed that little what’s-his-name lying over there, but no, we’ve just been sort of taking it easy.”

“Hm. What about in there?” he asked, indicated Bruce’s cottage. “Who lives there? You kill them?”

“No, we didn’t,” Orl said. “They helped put Haakon back together and everything. Seem like good folks.”

“Nobody’s killing them,” Gnut said.

“So everybody’s back at the monastery, then?” I asked.

“Well, most of them. Those young men had a disagreement over some damn thing and fell to cutting each other. Gonna make for a tough row out of here. Pray for wind I guess.”

Brown smoke was heavy in the sky, and I could hear dim sounds of people screaming (234-235, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”).

As far as contemporary (and young) short story writers go, Tower is a strong talent, and I think we’re only seeing the beginning of a huge body of work. I hope as he continues to write and publish that he doesn’t lose the fun he’s written into these stories. And, while I don’t like to cut any slack for overwriting or explaining or ruining metaphors with explicitness, I had to in this book for the sheer enjoyment of believable characters, strong imagery, and humor that won’t let the reader forget that life is really one big, dark joke.