The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather (American classic)

“In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.”

I’ll confess that I was surprised when I read this book and found that one-third of it chronicles Thea’s childhood. I expected it to be more about her professional life and, by the time I finished the book, was glad it wasn’t. I thought that the life she led as an opera singer was dreary and that many of the people connected to her at that stage of life were shallow. I found satisfaction, however, in the fact that Thea, herself, recognizes that the professional world she lives in runs on false values. I loved her assessment of it in this conversation she has with a friend of her youth:

“I can’t be careless with money. I began the world on six hundred dollars, and it was the price of a man’s life. [The man] had worked so hard and been sober and denied himself, and when he died he had six hundred dollars to show for it. I always measure things by that six hundred dollars, just as I measure high buildings by the Moonstone standpipe. There are standards we can’t get away from.”

Part 6, Chapter 9
Book cover of The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
The Song of the Lark

I admired Thea’s ability to hold on to the standards of her youth and live a life of integrity, despite the very real temptations she faced to do the opposite. Paradoxically, she clung to the values she learned in Moonstone and yet only returned home once after she left it the first time. That made me sad, until I realized that the lives of many these days follow a similar pattern. In this rapidly changing world we live in, childhood homes get remodeled, sold, and torn down. People we love change, move away, or die. New communities arise, technology sprints ahead, and popular culture whirls past us and evaporates almost as soon as it appears. Perhaps more importantly, we change. We can never return to a place and find it exactly as it lives in our memories. Like it or not, that’s the way our lives will be until this mortal earth passes away and is replaced by God’s holy city—the place destined to be our permanent home (Revelation 21: 1–2).

The more I contemplate The Song of the Lark, the more I recognize the brilliant way it compares and contrasts the substantial and the shallow, the things that endure and the things that time devours and destroys (Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes, Volume 1, Chapter 9). As much as Thea Kronberg’s life as an artist repelled me, the music that she sacrificed so much to perform is one of the things that has outlived both her and Willa Cather. The Song of the Lark was originally published in 1915; after one hundred years, people are still performing this great music and being inspired by it!

The featured image came from Pixabay.