Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the February 27, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.
With the exception of a few years I spent living in such exotic places as Texas and Ireland, I spent the other 60 years of my life making my home on either the west or east coasts of the United States. I’ve lived within a drive to an ocean and sometimes had a bird’s eye view of a bay.
What about spacious skies, fruited plains, and waves of grain and the landscapes of The Great American Midwest? Besides a very quick drive (mostly at night) through the uppermost United States, the tall grasses of the prairies and the little houses in the big woods were simply foreign to me.
It wasn’t until I was fortunate enough in college to have a terrific American Lit professor that I was introduced to the short stories of Willa Cather. As it was a survey course covering many years, we concentrated on Wharton and Twain, Chopin and Hawthorne. It was the plain and simple language of Cather, however, that drew me in. I did, in fact, compare the grammatical construction of the short stories, “Neighbour Rosicky” by Cather and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In my estimation, Cather won for the rhythms, the imagery, and emotion of her work.
Cather was born in Virginia and died in New York City. Her family called her Willie, a Southern nickname for Willa. When she was nine years old, Willa’s family moved to the Nebraska plains where her passion for the Midwest would become the core of her writing. She attended the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1895, and her most famous novels, “My Ántonia,” “Song of the Lark,” and “O, Pioneers” (her prairie trilogy) were novels set on the Nebraska plains.
There has been an ongoing debate questioning why American Midwestern literature seems to be overlooked when we think of most of the classics. American author and Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut, admits to sometimes distancing himself from his Indiana roots. Like many other authors, Vonnegut spent his writing years living elsewhere. In his personal writing, Vonnegut wondered if it were because, after the World Wars, his family, and the country, in general, purposely created distance from the Germanic immigrant culture of many of the Midwestern states.
Other authors writing about the Midwest were Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, and Theodore Dreiser. Their novels focused on life in the big city, Chicago. Sherwood Anderson, a Chicagoan, wrote short tales of life in a small Ohio town in Winesburg, Ohio. Modern authors Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates have set some of their tales in the often-ignored landscapes of the American Midwest.
The Midwest was settled by immigrants from all over Eastern Europe. In Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky” she tells the sweet story of Rosicky, a Czech immigrant, his passion for working the land, his innate reticence to express emotion, and his deep love of family. Those themes are often expressed in Cather’s writing.
Modern Minnesota author and college professor, Will Weaver, also writes of the American Midwest. His collection of short stories, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” was republished as “Sweet Land” after the release of an Indie movie by the same title.
The first time I watched the film “Sweet Land,” I was reminded so much of Willa Cather’s Midwest. The story the film is based on (“A Gravestone Made of Wheat”) is brief but rich with emotion. The actual story varies considerably from the movie, but the movie captures the essence well. “Sweet Land” is considered an Indie film and it wasn’t made with big studio money or backing. Indie movies often receive very little publicity and disappear from film onto DVD with little fanfare. Fortunately, librarians hear of them and purchase them for the library’s collection. “Sweet Land” is in our library’s collection along with many more.
Like Cather’s tales, “Sweet Land” is set in the Midwestern landscape, in a Scandinavian immigrant community of Minnesota. Most of the farmers living there are from Norway. Themes of family history and a hard-working life on the land, clannishness and bigotry are central to this story about a community, an unmarried farmer (Olaf), and his mail-order bride (Inge.)
“Sweet Land” took over 15 years to make and one of my favorite actors, Alan Cumming, was instrumental in helping to get it onto the screen. Cumming is the kind of actor you don’t forget; then again, you might only remember when you see him on television, on the stage, or on the screen. In “Sweet Land,” he plays a supporting role as Olaf’s neighbor as an inept farmer with a pleasant, sturdy wife and a gaggle of children. (Other familiar faces in the film are those of banker and villain, Ned Beatty, and conventional church pastor, John Heard.)
Women are not plentiful in the hard and cold landscape of the immigrant Midwest. Inge, orphaned and beautiful, travels to America, sight-unseen in more ways than one, to marry steadfast Olaf, who needs a wife. Inge and Olaf quickly find that the unflinching interpretations of rules and the unfair biases of American culture will not allow their marriage to take place. Unfortunately, Inge is from a German enclave of Norway. She also has accidentally obtained papers that marked her member of the American Socialist Party. In the 1920s, following World War I, there is incredible bias and prejudice against Germans in the United States and Inge is ostracized.
Many American films set in the Midwest are comedic. They’re set in cities like Chicago (“Ferris Buehler’s Day Off”) or Detroit (“Gross Pointe Blank”.) Or they’re quirky like “Fargo” or about sports, like “Mighty Ducks” and “Hoosiers.” It’s refreshing to see the Midwest portrayed so beautifully as in “Sweet Land”, a love story that is gentle, heart-wrenching and joyous.