JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 11 February 2018

A chance visit to St Gobnait's shrine revealed why I have felt uneasy reading Willa Cather's My Ántonia. We happened on St Gobnait in Ballyvourney, County Cork, on the eve of her day, February 11th. Graves were being tidied, lurid primulas planted (with their pots) at the foot of her statue, some early prayerful women were already doing the stations of the cross. We gave the place its due, talked to a gravedigger, refreshed our ignorance of the rosary, then drove off on an unknown road south, rather than east, the way we were going, as if in order to confirm our stranger status.

Willa Cather's immersion in the prairies of Nebraska would have thrilled me when I was twelve. I may have read My Ántonia around then, when I depended upon immersion in whatever long grass would shelter me. But it was just long grass, not the long grass of home, or the long grass of my country, adopted or otherwise, it was temporary shelter; there was nobody else around, and wherever I found myself later I would seek out its equivalent.

Although My Ántonia focuses on newcomers to Nebraska, these were Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians and Danes who would stay there, and build and prosper, many of them. They confirmed the stranger in the narrator, who, like Willa Cather, moved there from Virginia when he was young. The land and the seasons give the book its pace and its roots. It isn't coy, or matter-of-fact. The very levelness of it confirms its truthfulness and my unease.

St Gobnait was the patron saint of bees. She chose her spot in Ballyvourney because she saw six white deer there, and the water was good among the small wooded hills. These days the deer are only carved into the metal railings, and water is everywhere around the old holy well because of attempts to drain the expanded carpark. A new well has been installed, more convenient, less boggy, though less charming than the old one, with its rag tree and bed of coins under the water, and there are instructions on how to proceed with the stations—certain parts of the route have to be walked twice, a bit like the Grand National.

I cannot stay with St Gobnait and the mysteries—joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous—I can only look; as I cannot settle among these new Nebraskans in the early twentieth century, I can only read.

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