For years I read the same novel every spring—Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. I was first assigned this novel as a classroom text when I was in the ninth grade, and I recall reading it with the fervor the defining books of one’s life always inspire. The simultaneous wide, raw beauty and harsh living conditions of Cather’s prairie made a kind of literal and spiritual sense to me. My family had spent a year in Nebraska when I was a child—my father serving as an intern pastor at the Lutheran Student Center of the campus of the University of Nebraska. We moved to Lincoln in August and took up residence in a Sears & Roebuck house that had a robin’s egg blue porch ceiling, old fashioned transom windows over the bedroom doors for ventilation during the sweltering summers and frigid winters, and a basement that smelled of stale water and dark dirt. The house (like us) had been moved from its original location, and sat on a plot of untended grass in a “transitional” neighborhood on the fringe of the city. The railroad was close enough that the house shook each time the train passed, and on spring nights it was possible to see a storm cloud rolling across the fields like a pewter-colored sheet of heavy velvet suspended from the sky.
I was incredibly lonely that year, and the house itself—as well as the landscape of Nebraska—spoke that loneliness. The endless horizon of the prairie felt obliterating, terrifying. How wide the earth was! How bleak! At night, in my bed, I lay looking up through the skylight in my ceiling, fixing my eyes on the constellations. I couldn’t have articulated this then, but looking back on that year now, as an adult, I see that what I wanted from the night sky was what the prairie (and my family’s move there) had stripped from me—an anchor. An anchor to myself and to the world. A fixed point to keep me tethered to my own body, to the present, and to a sense that anything had meaning.
Later, reading My Ántonia from another home (this one on the far west coast of the country, in a landscape just as beautiful and raw, but abundant rather than spare), I recognized in Cather’s prose what I had felt during that year in Nebraska.
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or tree, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. […] I had the feeling the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before look up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. […] Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.
There’s beauty in the erasure, Cather points out. There’s a gift of freedom in recognizing one’s smallness against the breadth of the larger world—under “the complete dome of heaven.” While her narrator, Jim, doesn’t say his prayers, it doesn’t seem to me that he’s turning away from or rejecting the divine; rather, he is witnessing the mystery of the divine as so much bigger than he’d previously understood it to be, and—in awe—he’s submitting to it. He (like all of the pioneer characters who populate this novel) recognizes that one must carry on despite the terror, the insufficiency, the smallness of being human; that there’s grace, in fact, in accepting the need to simply carry on.
. . .
This summer, I had the privilege of reading writer Elizabeth Strout’s newest book, Olive, Again, ahead of its October 15 release. The book reminded me of Cather’s in many ways—its unadorned but beautiful prose, the depth with which it portrays the familiar, and the warmth of its depictions of characters whose lives are defined by the need to simply carry on. Here, Strout picks up the characters she first introduced to readers in her Pulitzer Prize winning 2008 book Olive Kitteridge. Olive, now, is in the last years of her life, though her charmingly caustic personality has not softened with age; nor have her bladed judgments about her neighbors, her family, and herself gone dull. Part of what so engaged readers in Strout’s first Olive book (and which will hold readers’ affections for Olive again here) is the blasting honesty with which Olive approaches life, and that forthright gaze (and the tongue to match) is again central to Strout’s portrayal of Olive in this book. In one of my favorite chapters/stories, “The Poet,” Olive explains aging to one of her former students, now a grown woman herself:
“’When you get old,’ Olive told Andrea […], ‘you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way.’”
Andrea looked at her searchingly. ‘Tell me how it’s freeing.’
‘Well.’ Olive was slightly taken aback; she didn’t know how to explain it. ‘It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing in that.’”
Later, Olive receives a poem that Andrea—once poet laureate of the state of Maine—has written about her and about this encounter. The poem reinforces what Olive has felt—that she is invisible, or at least misinterpreted, by others. The poet has gotten her all wrong; yet, at the same time, Olive sees in the poetic portrayal of herself something she recognizes but has not wanted to face. She has been seen, though she’s been seen slant, and the misunderstanding (both the poet’s and her own) cuts.
It’s this erasure—both unintentional and unwanted invisibility, and also willful rejection—of self and other that threads the book’s chapters/stories most tightly to one another. (A small aside about form here: the book is being marketed to readers as a novel, but its chapters would be more accurately categorized—if categorizing matters—as stand-alone stories, linked to one another by their shared setting and the occasional overlap of their characters. Going forward here, I will call them stories.) At the heart of the book, submerged in narratives about love and loss and coming to terms with the failings of one’s life, are these central questions: How do we get by in the face of the inevitable (incredible) pain of living? How do we find connection to others when we are so clearly walking this earth alone? What does a life matter, really, when it is so impossibly messy, so uncontrollable, so easily misunderstood? How do we withstand the loneliness of being?
Although at points I struggled with the prairie-like, laid-bare quality of the stories (most of what happens is right on the surface, and little untangling or digging is required of the reader), at the same time these stories shone because of the bone-bare truths of their characters’ recognitions and revelations. Strout’s gaze (through Olive’s eyes, in particular) is unsparing, and often brutal, but also achingly resonant. (“I do not have a clue who I have been,” Olive thinks in assessing her life. “Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.”)
. . .
Two summers ago, my husband and I took our children on a trip to the Midwest, where we spent a week in Nebraska. The prairie was as I remembered it—vast, throbbing with heat and the frayed-electric-wire sound of insects, strikingly colorful with its red and purple native grasses and wildflowers. I had forgotten, though, how it is possible to see the curvature of the earth when standing still and looking out at the stretch of prairie horizon. I had forgotten how, on any given July afternoon, a thunderstorm might rise up from that split between heaven and earth and come tearing across the land like a nightmare of divine force. I had forgotten how, driving at night, the lights of distant towns are visible across the span of empty miles, like boats at sea. Nothing escapes here, but at the same time, everything does. The mystery is in the dual truths—of beauty and barrenness; of meaning and obliteration; of recognizing that under the great dome of heaven, we are, all of us, both free and bound to submit.
Like me, after years of living elsewhere, Cather’s Jim returns to the Nebraska of his youth at the close of My Ántonia. Looking at the prairie again, he says, “I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. […] I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.”
I thought about those lines as I read Olive, Again. What do we do with that “little circle of experience,” the reader of both books is left to ask herself? What do we make of the task of being planted here, in these bodies of bare bone and fragile skin, in the forever–between space that separates the earthly and the divine?
Cather and Strout come to the same conclusion—one that makes sense to me, even if it doesn’t offer perfect resolution: “’I think our job—maybe even our duty—is to—,” Strout’s character Suzanne in the story “Helped” says, “To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.”
Carry on, in other words. Carry on.
. . .
Read more from Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum at Good Letters:
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is a fiction writer, editor, and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. Find out more about her work at www.kirstensundberglunstrum.com.