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Celebrating Willa Cather

Two-day event at Mount Monadnock honors 100th anniversary of best-selling novel ‘My Antonia’

  • “Willa Cather’s Spirit Lives On!” is the title of a two-day nation-wide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the author’s best seller, My Ántonia. The celebration is to be held in Jaffrey Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19 and 20. Courtesy Photo

  • “Willa Cather’s Spirit Lives On!” is the title of a two-day nation-wide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the author’s best seller, “My Ántonia.” The celebration is to be held in Jaffrey Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19 and 20. Courtesy Photo


Thursday, September 20, 2018 9:27PM

“Willa Cather’s Spirit Lives On!” is the title of a two-day nation-wide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the author’s bestseller, “My Ántonia,” a novel about a Bohemian immigrant girl adapting to life in the plains of Nebraska. Locally, the celebration will be held at the foot of Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19 and 20.

Cather (1873-1947), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was born in Virginia, raised in Nebraska, and a long-time resident of New York City. But she spent many fall and summer months in Jaffrey and wished to be buried there. Her gravesite, a tourist attraction in Jaffrey, is in the cemetery behind the 1775 Jaffrey Meetinghouse.

“This is a unique, national celebration of Willa Cather. We are asking people to come celebrate this great author in words, music, theater and food in the places, autumn color and mountain air she loved,” said Lou Casagrande, retired CEO of the Boston Children’s Museum and co-chair of the Jaffrey Cather Committee of six local organizations. The national sponsors are The Willa Cather Foundation of Red Cloud, Nebraska, and The MacDowell Colony of Peterborough.

Cather wrote that “the best part of all the better books” – “My Ántonia,” “A Lost Lady” and “Death Comes for the Archbishop” – was written in Jaffrey. Parts of “My Ántonia” and “One of Ours” (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923) were written in a tent in a field a half-mile away from her room on the top floor of the Shattuck Inn, where she retreated in summer or fall months between 1917 and 1940.

The celebration will begin with a Friday night reception at the Jaffrey Civic Center. On Saturday, the focus moves to Jaffrey Center, where guided morning tours will visit the gravesite near Jaffrey’s 1775 Meetinghouse where Cather was buried in 1947 and Edith Lewis, her lifelong companion and assistant, was buried 25 years later; the field where she wrote in a tent; and the 1833 Melville Academy Museum, which has exhibits on Cather and Lewis.

Young actors from Jaffrey’s Project Shakespeare plan to enact passages from “My Ántonia” or Cather’s letters at each site. A box lunch will be provided by the Shattuck Golf Club, the site of the former Shattuck Inn.

In the afternoon, Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation, and Tracy Tucker, archivist and director of education, will make a presentation at the Meetinghouse on “My Ántonia” and the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Classical and ragtime pianist Virginia Eskin will then give a lecture and recital on “How Willa Cather Played Music Into Her Writing” at the First Church in Jaffrey, across from the Meetinghouse.

Dinner will be at the Shattuck Golf Club and will feature dishes from the world of Cather’s immigrants.

Capping the day will be a performance of a musical play, “Kindness and Cruelty: Willa Cather in Jaffrey,” written by Tom Dunn with music and lyrics by Will Ogmundson. It has been touring New Hampshire since last November.

Tickets to the Friday and Saturday events are limited to 140 people because of the size of the venues. All eight events, including the dinner, a box lunch, the piano recital and the play are included in the $75 registration fee.

Half the tickets were sold as of Sept. 6. People can read about the Cather events and buy tickets by going directly to jaffreychamber.com/events/details/willa-cather-national-celebration-7235, or by phoning the Jaffrey Chamber of Commerce at 532-4549.

While the formal program ends Saturday, options on Sunday include a church service focusing on Willa Cather at 10:30 a.m. at the First Church in Jaffrey. Melville Academy Museum will be open from 2 to 4 p.m., and hikers can follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau and ascend to the 3,165-foot peak of Mt. Monadnock, the second most-climbed mountain in the world, or simply enjoy the fall foliage.