Sunday, June 02, 2019

The Song of the Lark - Willa Cather

This year's Back to the Classics challenge has a category for books set in a place you've lived. Since I am the definition of a homebody, I needed to find a book set in Colorado as I have never lived anywhere else. Novels set in Colorado are not all that common, and I could only come up with ones that are not yet 50 years old - Centennial, The Shining, Kent Haruf's eastern plains stories, a variety of mysteries (cozy and otherwise), but no real classics. Fortunately, I learned that Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark is set in the north east corner of Colorado, and that sealed the deal.

I absolutely loved The Song of the Lark. It is the story of Thea Kronberg, one of many children of Swedish immigrants, who is blessed with not only tremendous musical talent but also a string of friends and mentors who enable her to reach her potential.

At first, Thea sets out to be a pianist, and studies dutifully and advances rapidly, but her real destiny is to become an opera diva who gravitates to Wagnerian roles.

Song of the Lark - painting by Jules Breton

There is so much to love about this book...let me count the ways.

1.  Heart stopping descriptions of Colorado--from the eastern plains to the Front Range, from the light in Denver in January, to the cool magic of the stars on the plains, to the arid beauty of the landscape, to the ever-present fringe of mountains on the horizon. This is from early in the book, when Thea as a young girl is traveling to Denver by train with her friend Ray Kennedy, who works on the railroad.
They were now about thirty miles from Denver, and the mountains looked very near. The great toothed wall behind which the sun had gone down now separated into four distinct ranges, one behind the other. They were a very pale blue, a color scarcely stronger than wood smoke, and the sunset had left bright streaks in the snow-filled gorges. In the clear, yellow-streaked sky the stars were coming out, flickering like newly lighted lamps, growing steadier and more golden as the sky darkened and the land beneath them fell into complete shadow. It was a cool, restful darkness that was not black or forbidding, but somehow open and free; the night of high plains where there is no moistness or mistiness in the atmosphere.
 2. Thea's collection of men friends who recognize her talent and unique drive to excel and open doors for her and teach her and coach her and love her. Dr Archie is such an interesting character and his story arc would make a fascinating novel in and of itself. Her first music teacher, Wunsch, is a deeply flawed person who cultivates Thea's taste and hones her work ethic. I loved her embracing of Spanish Johnny and her interactions with the Mexican population in her town. Her music teacher in Chicago, Harsanyi, and his wife were also marvelous, and I suspect based on a real person. And then there's sweet Ray Kennedy, who made Thea's dreams a reality--he gave all he had so that she could succeed. Finally, Fred Ottenberg was another original character, who defied stereotype to become a lasting pillar in Thea's pantheon of gods.

3. Thea's relationship with music and her respect for and acknowledgement of her talent. One of the things I love about Thea is that she is not coy about her abilities. She knows she is gifted, she knows she has to work hard to cultivate those gifts, but the music she plays and later sings is something that is connected to her innermost self, her soul, for lack of a better term. Last year, I passed up the opportunity to hear Wagner's Ring cycle, and now I am so wishing I had made the time for it as having seen the operas and not just having heard them would have enhanced the book so much.

One of Thea's first roles was a Rhine maiden in Wagner's Das Reingold. I picture Thea as the maiden on the right

4. Thea's mother - Thea has a cast of men who help and support and enrich her, but when it comes to her parents, her father fades into the background while her mother emerges as her first and best champion who was willing to acknowledge that Thea's gifts outstripped those of her other children. Not that Mrs. Kronberg loved Thea more than the others, but she accomodated Thea more. As with O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark is definitely a riff on the immigrant experience--seizing the brass ring when you have the chance.

5. The time Thea and Fred spend in Arizona in Panther Canyon, finding rejuvenation within the ancient cliff dwellings. I absolutely love the Southwest landscape and always feel the magic quality of the sandstone, endless blue skies, mesas, and thunderclouds. I have never read a novel before in which someone actually lives in these cave dwellings, but it stirred my own soul.

6. I've read that this book is the most autobiographical of Cather's stories, and she used it to explore the creative process, a topic that never ceases to fascinate me. I am inspired to read a bio of Cather and find out how much of Thea's story is her own--obviously, Thea's gifts were musical rather than literary, but Cather must have had a deep familiarity with music and opera to be able to write in such detail about Thea's training and the physical toll that performing took on her.

7. Cather's writing is such a pleasure to read. My battered paperback is pockmarked with earmarked pages as I turned down page after page that contained exquisite prose. Her writing contains deep insights into the life of an artist, the landscapes that shape personality and soul, and the bonds between people of all walks of life that enable the power and beauty of art to be born.

Absolute 5-star book, and another notch in my Back to the Classics challenge.


  1. I just requested Song of the Lark from my local library. It sounds good!

  2. Great review. The theme of finding a book set close to where one lives is a neat one. I really need to read Cather. I will likely do so soon. I think that I will enjoy her writing style. Thea sounds like such a well crafted character.

  3. I'm looking forward to reading this one day (soon) after loving My Antonia so much. But it was your reference to Centennial that brought back all sorts of wonderful memories. There was an amazing (to my 12yr old mind) mini series in the late 70's that I adored for it's rich historical detail and epic family stories. I even tackled the mammoth book afterwards to keep the story alive in my mind, I wasn't ready to leave the characters behind. I love the unexpected journey we can take when reading someone else's blog :-)

    1. I reread Centennial two years ago, and then got the mini-series from the library, and fell in love all over again. Great book and great mini-series. I would love to do a 70’s best-seller challenge one of these years—so many wonderful memories from those days.

  4. I've loved the Willa Cather novels I've read and this one belongs on my list. Unfortunately, my classics reading has been practically nonexistent this year. I seem to be focused on nonfiction lately. We'll see how much longer that lasts. Great review!

  5. The first Cather I read I disliked (Death Comes for the Archbishop). I think I read it, however, before I was mature enough as a reader to appreciate Cather’s landscape writing. I read My Antonia a couple of years ago and just loved it. I think I will also love The Song of the Lark based on your wonderful review. It sounds like it has all the elements I adored in My Antonia.

    I hope you get the chance to experience The Ring Cycle some day if that is what you want. Isn’t it like a million hours long? LOL

    1. You know an opera is long when they schedule dinner breaks!

  6. I love this Willa Cather novel, too. :)

  7. Hmm I like that it is set in Colorado too and the part about the ancient cliff dwellings in Arizona would interest me too. I still want to reread My Antonia first, but then get to others of Cather's. Nicely reviewed.

  8. So great to hear that The Song of the Lark struck such a chord with you. Nothing like a 5-star read. It sounds beautiful, with a great cast of characters. Willa Cather's style is so lyrical and descriptive, although I've only read O Pioneers so far.