by Sam Juliano
Question: What female writer, one of America’s greatest literary figures, was born shortly after the end of the Civil War, is most famously known for writing novels about growing up on the prairie and of the indomitable women who overcome the challenges of an arduous existence, usually wrought with some level of impoverishment?
At least nine out of ten respondents wouldn’t blink as they intone the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. This much-translated woman of letters was after all born in 1867, and her “Little House” books have sold millions of copies around the world. Surely there can be no question of her preeminence as the prime purveyor of the simple life, growing up in log cabins, and overcoming a series of tragic events that are woven into books that are largely autobiographical. Yet, Wilder authored her books for elementary school students and her themes, though genuine and affecting, are one-note. That she is an exceptional writer who continues to be read widely cannot be challenged. But no, she can’t be considered one of the nation’s greatest literary figures. The correct answer to the above question is Willa Cather, who was born in 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her Plains Trilogy (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia), her Pulitzer Prize winning One of Ours and her later Death Comes for the Archbishop are always mentioned on lists of the greatest American novels ever written, and her superlative of short stories The Troll Garden includes one of the most celebrated of all short stories, “Paul’s Case.” In all probability Cather’s only equal would be Edith Wharton, though arguably short story masters Flannery O’ Connor and Kate Chopin and one-hit wonder Harper Lee can be broached in these terms. Like all the greatest writers, Cather’s themes were often psychologically complex, her world view rarely attuned to all around her.
The subject of a new biography by Amy Ehrlich, Willa is a Cather biography for beginners, yet in the space of fifty pages and some comprehensive timeline and biographical extras the author offers up a reasonably thorough examination of the literary icon’s coming of age and the pastoral settings that later were incorporated into some of her most famous works. The focus of Willa is mainly on the outdoors and this gives nature illustrator extraordinaire Wendell Minor the opportunity to contribute a plethora of exquisitely rendered watercolor art, alternating from old-fashioned sepia to full colored spreads that both define the era and the setting, and accentuate the breathtaking vistas during a time of social upheaval and geographical relocation. Cather’s first home was Willow Shade, a white brick home featuring four columns. It was there where her informal education began when her grandmother read her children’s books and long passages from the Bible. She spend much of her time outdoors playing with her brother Roscoe and a sheepdog. After relatives paved the way for a move that wasn’t really desired but was practically necessitated after two aunts came down sick with tuberculosis and the sheep barn burned down, Willa’s father sold Willow Shade and joined the other kin in Nebraska. The neighbors were German, Scandinavian and Russian immigrants looking for a better life, but this turned out to be the toughest time of Willa’s life. She rode her Pony over frozen ground to a one-room schoolhouse. After her father opened up a real estate office in Red Cloud, Willa encountered theater and opera, and she began reading the classics. She was a non-conformist and attracted scorn for her manly apparel and short hair. She attended college in the state capital of Lincoln, eventually wrote for periodicals and moved into Greenwich Village in Manhattan. In the ensuing years she met some of the greatest literary figures: Mark Twain, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, Truman Capote, and of course the aforementioned Sarah Orne Jewett. She lived into her seventy-fourth year, becoming a literary giant. Throughout Willa, Ehrlich’s descriptive language evokes idyllic settings seasonal colors.
Though Minor’s art is exceptionally well-integrated and strikingly ornamented into the text, there are a number of showstopping illustrations starting off with the Brother Sun Sister Moon painting that runs behind the copyright and dedication pages. Like Franco Zeffirelli’s set designer Danilo Donati, Minor favors yellow and violet for his field of flowers, a place where the young Willa can immerse herself in the same kind of pastoral bliss as the titular character in Ferdinand the Bull. Then there are two lovely sepia captures of Willa at Willow Shade and an upstairs bedroom reunion of a former slave and her mother, conveyed by way of poignant minimalism. Willa, her brother Roscoe, and a sheepdog play ball in another splendid rustic canvas; two workers hoeing at sunset; the touching escape of Vic, who carries his chain as he approaches a thrilled Emma at the train depot in a sharply drawn double page tapestry; horse and wagon proceeding over the limitless expanse; former European cigar makers now plowing the fields with horse power under an ominous sky; a wonderfully contrasted kitchen scene right of Little House on the Prairie; a gorgeous Huckleberry Finn-styled spread in front of wooden house with a long white fence where the kids play; Willa with her boy’s haircut reading a classic in the attic; Willa featured in the forefront of a colorfully adorned tent gathering dressed in a suit with blue bow tie – a real model of confidence.
Also, the sepia toned drawing room meeting of Willa and the writer Sarah Orne Jewett and a marvelously sublime spread of Willa walking up Charles Street in Boston, a well-manicured stretch of connected stone buildings sporting flowers and pigeon interlopers. This pictorial gem recalls his work in This is the Earth, which Minor illustrated earlier in 2016 for Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander, a book that was previously reviewed in this Caldecott Medal Contender series; the strikingly grand landscape of the reddish Arizona canyons, cliff dwellings and stone hills, and two sublime paintings of the established Willa standing with a stick along a river etched in shades of blue and the unforgettable segue into yellow where the paragon traverses the setting of his childhood, one bathed in the golden hues of a setting sun, where a blackbird is perched on a plow abandoned for the evening. With a soulful passage from her beloved Oh Pioneers! sprawled across the top, it is a Minor classic, an elegiac canvas of the vastness of our country that no other artist can match. Minor projects the soul of America.
Of course no discussion about the art in Willa can possibly omit that remarkable dust jacket, one of the finest of any picture book released this year. A deep expanse of yellow wildflowers before and beyond a steaming locomotive spewing black smoke and pulling a line of cars, under a puffy sky. Willa watches holding a basket of flowers in one hand, a book in another as birds fly from near and above. Minor has yet to win a Caldecott of Honor citation, though his magnificent and widely revered art has been awarded with a bevy of other citations. A number of his books have placed on the year-end best lists of many book sites, and he has been the artist of choice for writers like Harper Lee and David McCollough, children’s book luminary Jean Craighead George and the famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin. That a Caldecott committee has yet to put him in the winner’s circle could well be timing, competition against himself (as it may well have been in 2014 when he released not one or two but three award worthy works – Galapagos George, Edward Hopper Paints the World and Sequoia. or just a crude twist of fate. Surely there are several other giants who have yet to be named, but in terms of breath, scope and association he does stand alone. Willa, a sumptuously illustrated early age biography of one of America’s literary giants is clearly another opportunity for the committee to anoint this extraordinary artist.
Note: This is the thirty-eighth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 40 to 45 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.