Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 and later attended University at Lincoln, Nebraska in 1890. It says on Wiki that her family originated from Wales and that the name ‘Cather’ derives from Cadair Idris in North Wales. Cather was a Pulitzer prize winning novelist whose books achieved great success and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Willa Cather wrote three novels set on the Great Plains. O Pioneers! (1913) The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918). I haven’t read the first one, adored The Song of the Lark so much that I still count it one of my favourite books ever, and now here is my review of My Antonia.
At the end of the l9th century Jim Burden, a 10 year old orphan is sent from his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska On the journey he comes into contact with the Shimerda family, also making their way to Nebraska. It turns out that they will be near neighbours, although housed in very different circumstances. The Shimerdas have been swindled, and arrive at their plot of land discovering that it contains no house. Just a cave. The eponymous Antonia is the daughter of this immigrant family from Bohemia – a few years older than the narrator, Jim. The stage is set for the Shimerda family to endure a hard life in a country whose language they do not speak.
Yet Jim and Antonia are soon friends, managing (as children will) with a language of their own, running wild on the prairie as opportunities arose. But when Jim becomes an adolescent, his grandparents decide to give up the farm and move into Black Hawk, the nearest town.
As lives change for both families, so the tone of the story changes significantly. Life is no longer free, for either of them. Jim discovers that he has considerable academic ability, while Antonia is taken on as a maid in the house of a neighbour. The two can still be together, in theory, but it’s not long before snobbery and social division threaten to disrupt the friendship.
I enjoyed this book a great deal although for me it is not quite in the same class as The Song of the Lark. There are many reasons to read Willa Cather. One of them is for the quality of her descriptive prose. No one does the prairie quite like Cather.
“:… under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better… .”
Another reason to read Cather is for her characterisation, and empathy with the Danish, Swedish and Czech families who made their way to the great plains at the turn of the twentieth century and the humanity with which she shows us their struggles and their lives.
Around the time that Willa Cather is submitting her essay on Thomas Carlisle for publication in the Nebraska State Journal, Marie Immaculata Brandisova is a child living somewhere in the forests South of Prague (then termed Bohemia) in a crumbling chateau filled with dogs, horses and various members of an aristocratic family named Brandis.
That’s nice. But who is she? To find the answer to this question I recommend reading Richard Askwith’s Unbreakable.
First, the world’s most dangerous horse race. No it is not the Grand National but the Pardubice which originated in Bohemia, a country that later would become Czechoslovakia and is now called the Czech Republic. The Pardubice is a race more fearsome than the UK’s Grand National – the horrible ditch jump called the Taxis more vicious than Becher’s Brook. Failing to finish this race was the norm; failing to survive it at all – either for horse or rider – not unknown. What then was the likelihood of a woman being allowed to take part in the era between the two world wars?
At this time women were not permitted membership of the jockey club, ergo women were not permitted to take part in any horse race. This was not a time when a woman might think ‘oh well, sod you lot I’ll have a go’. The cultural, social, sexual, emotional and political barriers were each a steeplechase of obstacles in their own right. There is no reason why Lata Brandisova should ever have been involved in this race except possibly as a spectator. But Askwith’s story shows us how this involvement came to be. Not only that against all the odds she rode and won races that she was prohibited by her sex even from entering, but she did so against a background of manipulation by the nazi propaganda machine of dangerous sports as some kind of entry qualification into the master race.
Richard Askwith’s book takes the reader from Lata’s privileged (if somewhat ill disciplined) childhood riding her father’s horses in the forests of Bohemia; it shows us Lata’s life as a Countess among the dying embers of the Hapsburg Empire, a life of immense changes wrought by the 1st world war, in which her father fought, leaving Lata aged 19 in charge of the family estate. It goes on to describe the country’s fledgling democracy and the family resistance to confiscation of their small acreage, up to Hitler’s rise to power and the severe impact which this had on the lives of the Czech people including the family in the crumbling chateau.
“There was – and still is – a steeplechase so extreme in its demands that some consider merely taking part to be an act of insanity. There was indeed a band of Nazi paramilitaries, seemingly invincible on horseback, who chose that same steeplechase as an arena in which to prove their credentials as a master race. And there really was a woman, shy, modest and awkward in company, who tried to stop them; and who refused in that as in much else, to take no for an answer.”
It is against this background and despite a work schedule that would fell an elephant, that Lata rose to fame in her own lifetime, broke the gender prohibition on women taking part in race riding, saw off the naysayers – including the nazi propaganda warrior riders – not only to take part in the Pardubice on five occasions, but to win it.
Do people know about this massive achievement? No. It is safe to say that most people do not. Yet we know about Amy Johnson’s solo flight around the same time. Lata’s achievements have, the author says, been ‘consigned to the dustbin of history’. Why?
As Askwith writes:
“This is an adventure from a rougher, more reckless age than ours: a time when men were men and women were their chattels, and horses were not the cherished pets they are now. Even aristocrats shrugged off daily discomforts that we would struggle to tolerate ….”
Lata’s story (Born Maria Immaculata Brandisova) shows the courage and determination that it took not only to compete in a man’s world but even to get to the start line.
This book was a Christmas present and maybe not something I would have picked up by myself. I am so grateful to have read it. And grateful to Richard Askwith for the minute detailed and painstaking research that he must have had to undertake to reveal this hidden and lost story of a fabulously courageous woman who beat the world’s jockey clubs at their own game.
Written with grace and humour, and with a determination that Lata’s story should be known, Askwith wants Lata to be given her due place not only in racing’s pantheon where she outshone time and time again aggressive masculine opposition to female sporting endeavours, but as one of the earliest and most staunch warriors against gender imbalance.