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She could not bear to be remembered that way, and she resolved never to get fussy like that again. She was now happier than she had been since she was a youngster. Those weeks off in the desert with her big, handsome brother were weeks that she would never forget. They took all the kinks and crinkles out, and she felt as if her mind had been freshly washed and ironed and made ready for a new life. She felt somehow confident, as if she had gotten her second wind. In describing her return to civilization to Sergeant she put it another way.

The Southwest had been so big and so consuming that she was now glad to be back in the East, where she could slowly come to herself without that swift, yellow excitement to think of. Before she left, the real meaning came to her of a sentence she once had carelessly read in Balzac: "Dans le desert, voyezvous, il y a tout et il n'y rien; Dieu sans les hommes" "In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing; God without men".

That sentence really means a great deal, she wrote. She was sitting mournfully beside the Rio Grande one day, just outside a beautiful Indian village, Santo Domingo, when she looked up and saw that sentence written in the sand. It explained what was the matter with her. One could play with the desert, love it, and go hard night and day and be full of it and quite tipsy with it, and then there came a moment when one must kiss it goodby and go, go bleeding, but go.

Back Creek Valley in Frederick County, Virginia, at the end of was a thinly settled district on the Northwest Turnpike linking Winchester and Romney, some thirty miles to the west. The farms in that part of the Shenandoah Valley, which lies some fifty miles west-northwest of the national capital, were mostly hilly, and their thin, rocky soil was not well suited to agriculture.

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The farmers would have been poor even if marauding soldiers had not destroyed their crops, driven off their stock, and burned their barns during the Civil War. Because the land was poor, field hands were not needed there as on the richer plantations farther east. No family had owned more than a few slaves before the war, and many settlers who did not believe in slavery owned none and worked their slatey acres with their own sweat.

So much of the land was still wild forest that the lumber they had in abundance was of no value at all. The people along Back Creek were predominantly Protestant, a mixture of Calvinists from Northern Ireland and German Lutherans, many newly arrived in the United States, augmented by native Pennsylvanians or older immigrants who had moved down into Virginia.

Some, like Willa Cather's parents, were fourth-generation Virginians. Less than a decade after the Civil War ended, the South was still recovering from the wracking agonies of the terrible conflict. Although Virginia escaped much of the punishment inflicted on the Confederacy during Reconstruction and was readmitted to the Union by , the state had lost thousands of its young men and had been a battleground during much of the war.

The Shenandoah Valley in particular was a strategic highway connecting North and South. Winchester, the county seat, stood at the crossroads of major highways running north and south, east and west, the latter being the Northwest Turnpike. The area had been stubbornly fought over throughout the four-year struggle, and Winchester changed hands many times. One resident of the area remembered: "So rapidly did it change hands that the inhabitants found it necessary [each morning] to look to the surrounding forts to see which flag was floating over them.

General Philip Sheridan had turned defeat into a victory with his famous ride from Winchester to Cedar Run in October and had finally defeated Confederate general Jubal A.

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Early there the following March, a few weeks before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Although the valley was largely Southern in its sympathies and did not, as West Virginia did, split away from the Confederacy, many pro-Northerners lived there, and the sectional differences that divided father and son, brother and brother, sister and sister, were nowhere more evident.

Prominent among the Union supporters in the valley was William Cather, grandfather of Willa. The Cather family originated in Wales. After Willa Cather had become a well-known novelist, she received a letter one day from a Cather in England asking if she were a descendant of the Jasper Cather who had emigrated to America from Northern Ireland.

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This distant English cousin explained that the original family home was the Cadder Idris, the highest mountain in Wales, from which the name apparently had come. An ancestor in the seventeenth century, the cousin also reported, had fought for Charles I, and in appreciation Charles II after the Restoration had given land in Ireland to Edmund and Bertram Cather, twin brothers, who then had settled in County Tyrone. There is a Cather coat of arms in British records of heraldry: a buck's head cabossed on a shield surmounted by a crest of a swan among reeds with the motto "Vigilans non cadet" "He who is vigilant will not fall".

This Jasper Cather, who was the first Cather in America, was a red-haired schoolteacher who settled in Western Pennsylvania around the middle of the eighteenth century. He fought in the Revolution, but little is known about him until he turned up in Frederick County, Virginia, after independence and bought land on Flint Ridge, two miles southeast of Back Creek Valley.


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In he married Sarah Moore, who bore him seven children, one of whom was James Cather, the great-grandfather of Willa, born in James in married Ann Howard, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland in the last year of the eighteenth century, when she was an infant. She bore James eight children, one of whom was William, the grandfather of Willa.

James Cather, who was much admired by his grandson Charles, Willa's father, was a man of some distinction in the community. A local historian describes him as "above the average farmer in intellect. Possessed with rare physical strength and wonderful energy, these qualities gave him an advantage over weaker men. Always informed on the current topics of the day, his conversational abilities were admirable.

Young men were always benefited by having him as a friend.

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Cartmell, the postmistress's father in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. As young Rachel Blake overhears him talking to his daughter, she thinks that his "talk had a flavour of old-fashioned courtesy. Cartmell also believes, as James Cather and his widowed daughter Sidney Gore did, that owning slaves is wrong.

James, however, sided with the South during the Civil War. Though he opposed both slavery and secession, he believed strongly in states' rights, and as a member of the legislature voted with the majority when Virginia left the Union. He made the same painful decision many southerners made that fateful spring. Robert E. Lee wrote his sister on April 10, "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.

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I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor service may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. Cather's narrator, Jim Burden, who goes to live with his grandparents after the death of his Virginia parents, describes his grandfather: "My grandfather said little. I felt at once his deliberateness and personal dignity, and was a little in awe of him. The thing one immediately noticed about him was his beautiful, crinkly snow-white beard. His bald crown only made it more impressive.

Grandfather's eyes were not at all like those of an old man; they were bright blue, and had a fresh, frosty sparkle. In his youth his conscience had led him to drop his inherited Calvinism and become a Baptist. Caroline Cather, whose father kept a popular tavern on the turnpike, was descended from Jeremiah Smith, who came to Virginia from England in He had been deeded land on Back Creek in by Lord Fairfax, who, one remembers, once had employed George Washington to survey his vast holdings. The deed to this small parcel of Fairfax's five million acres still remains in the possession of Cather descendants.

To Jim Burden his grandmother appears "a spare, tall woman , a little stooped, and she was apt to carry her head thrust forward in an attitude of attention. She was quick-footed and energetic in all her movements. Her voice was high and rather shrill, and she often spoke with an anxious inflection. Her laugh, too, was high and perhaps a little strident, but there was a lively intelligence in it. She was then fifty-five years old, a strong woman, of unusual endurance. In William and Caroline settled on a farm about a mile east of the village of Back Creek.

William bought acres and later more than doubled his property. He built a large, solid three-story brick house on the north side of the turnpike and named it Willow Shade. It still stands on the outskirts of what is now the town of Gore. Each room once had a fireplace, and surrounding the house in the nineteenth century were great willow trees.

A stream ran through the front yard, spanned by a rustic bridge, and a spring from the mountain behind provided cool water for refrigeration and household use. A flight of steps still leads to a porch supported by white columns and an entranceway into the second story. Across the turnpike is a steep hill that cuts off the view from the lower story.

As an adult, Cather remembered the kitchen on the ground floor as being the most pleasant room in the house, also the most interesting. The parlor was stiff and formal except when it was full of company, which was often, but the kitchen was comfortable. Besides the eight-hole range, there was a huge fireplace with a crane to lift heavy pots. There was always a roaring fire in the winter, which was kept up at night after the stove fires went out. There were three kitchen tables: one for making bread, another for pastry, and a third covered with zinc used for cutting up meat.

There were also tall cupboards used for storing sugar and spices and groceries. The farm wagons brought supplies from Winchester in large quantities so that the Cathers did not have to make the trip often. There was a special cupboard that held jars of brandied fruit, ginger, and orange peel soaking in whiskey. Vegetables for winter were kept in a storeroom at the back cooled by the spring that supplied the house.

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This house and its surroundings are the center of all of Willa Cather's early memories. Before she was born, however, the war split the Cathers and alienated neighbors. William and Caroline, as strong Union supporters, broke with William's father and brothers and sisters. Their two sons, Charles Willa's father and George, were too young for military duty at the beginning of the conflict, but before the end they were sent across the border less than five miles away to West Virginia to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army.

As the war went on around them, the Cathers lived in fear of trouble.


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  • Both Confederate and Union troops were continually moving up and down the turnpike and demanding of local residents food and shelter. The Cathers were lucky, however, and survived the war with no great loss of property.