Willa Cather’s “The Bohemian Girl”

Finally – the Willa Cather story I’ve been looking for!  A number of years ago, I read and enjoyed several of her novels:  My Antonia, Shadows on the Rock, Death Comes For the Archbishop.  The short stories I’ve read up until now have left me a little flat – perhaps some interesting situations, but as a reader I felt I was only seeing the surface.

With “The Bohemian Girl”, the reader gets much surface – beautiful, panoramic surface.  Underneath the surface; however, an even more beautiful history and puzzling conflict gets brought to vivid life.

The Erikson family live in Nebraska at the turn of the twentieth century.  Of Scandinavian descent, Mr. Erikson, a preacher, has died.  Mrs. Erikson drives one of the first automobiles in the community.  The Erikson family, including eight sons, exemplify what I would call the “Protestant Work Ethic”.  They have literally put the horse to the plow, farming land to make money to buy more land – and becoming wildly successful doing this.

The Vavrika family, from Bohemia (western Czech Republic, today), owns a saloon in the community.  While successful in his own right, Joe Vavrika takes time out to enjoy himself with music, art, storytelling and friendship.  This love of life and free spirit gets passed down to his daughter, Clara, the title character.

As one might guess, one of the Erikson boys is considered a “black sheep”.  After being gone for about a dozen years, Nils returns to find Clara married to his older brother, Olaf.  Seeing this as a marriage of convenience, Nils gets reacquainted with Clara.  Talking of his travels, Nils gets Clara to see the huge difference between herself and her husband – hoping for some benefit to himself.

I found the underlying conflict between the Eriksons and the Vavrikas both puzzling and enlightening.  The conflict did not revolve around who was rich and who was poor.  While the Eriksons had their way of pursuing the American dream, the Vavrikas had a different way of pursing it.  From my understanding of the story, I don’t see either family as financial failures.    Yet, they seem to live with each other with grudges, animosity and mutual distrust – because they are different?

Even as another free spirit, Nils reveals that he has a mind for business, just not the family business.  I found the resolution to the tension imminent in Clara’s situation surprisingly satisfying.

From a forward in my Cather collection, I discovered that this story eventually weaved its way into becoming one of Cather’s better known novels, O, Pioneers!.

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