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Response to “The Best Years.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project.

Barbed wire at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie (photo by Chris Wolak)
Barbed wire close up at The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie (photo taken by me in 2011)

These response posts assume you have read the story under discussion, so there are often spoilers . . . such is the case with this post.

Leslie dies! I did not see that coming. Did you?

Perhaps I didn’t see it coming because of the setup for this story in the reminder post I wrote earlier this month. That post focused on the fact that Cather wrote this story late in her life for her brother and it was about their childhood.

While reading this story with that in mind, I couldn’t help but think of Cather in Leslie’s shoes. I expected to read a lovely walk down memory lane — something along the line of “Two Friends” — and assumed Leslie would live to old age. Instead, she gets pneumonia during a great blizzard and dies at a young age.

It would be easy to dismiss this story as an older writer’s lament over the loss of her youth, but, as with all things Cather, I think this story is more complicated than that.

For one, Evangeline Knightly (married name Thorndike) and not Leslie is the main protagonist of the story, but because all the characters seem to revolve around Leslie, it’s easy to get swept up in the younger woman. This is, indeed, what makes her death so shocking.

Twenty years later Mrs. Ferguesson, Leslie’s mother, is understandably haunted by the death of her child. That Leslie was the eldest child, her only daughter so full of promise, and that she died so young all contribute to make her loss and memory so poignant.

Mrs. Ferguesson is obviously stuck in the past. She doesn’t appreciate any progress or change — from her new house, to the young working women she saw in a California cafeteria and judged by saying that they seemed like convicts, to old men playing horseshoes anywhere else but in her town — all is less than what she had twenty years ago.

She decrees that middle aged people shouldn’t try anything new, that people are happiest where they’ve had their children (apparently all people have/are able to have/want children in her world). She glorifies the good old days, saying, “Well, this I know: our best years are when we’re working hardest and going right ahead when we can hardly see our way out.” She sounds like a jock who peaked in high school. Now there I go getting judgy.

There’s not much for Knightly to say after Mrs. Ferguesson’s rant. She murmurs something, then responds to a direct question after which Mrs. Ferguesson launches into another long monologue, this time about what Knightly should do while she’s in town. Knightly doesn’t go back for a second visit. Instead she writes a letter to Mrs. Ferguesson from Maine. We don’t know if Mrs. Ferguesson writes back, only that she passes on the letter to her son.

It is Knightly who grows and changes throughout the story, from beginning to end. She moves on from her job as Superintendent, marries, and knows things have changed in MacAlpin because she’s kept a subscription to the local paper. She’s a curious woman, perhaps a bit sentimental?

Knighlty reminds me of Mrs. Allison in “The Old Beauty,” another middle-aged woman who has rolled with the changing times. There’s also a car connection between these two stories. A car doesn’t come close to killing anyone in “The Best Years,” although cows are endangered by Mr. Ferguesson’s absentminded driving. It sounds like Knightly takes an “otto” from the train depot to a hotel, but she longs to drive a buggy to visit some of the schools she once oversaw as school superintendent.

The Best Years Quote and photo of the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie (taken by Chris Wolak)
Barbed wire fence at The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie (photo taken by me in 2011)

The young and bright Wanda Bliss, the new Superintendent, offers to drive Knightly around in her car, but the older woman declines the offer.

When Bliss is introduced as a “wide-awake, breezy girl, with bobbed blond hair and crimson lips” I braced myself. It kind of seemed like a set up. How would Knightly react to such a character, one with the name of Wanda Bliss? Will she be judgemental? Dismissive?

None of the above.

Rather than being offended by Bliss’s casual, breezy manner in offering to drive her around to the schools in her car, Knightly, “thanked her warmly.” Her thoughts go on,

She liked young people who were not in the least afraid of life or luck or responsibility. In her own youth there were very few like that. The teachers, and many of the pupils out in the country schools, were eager–but anxious.

The two women who’ve shared a job title but come from different generations, have a laugh together over Knightly’s desire to hire a buggy, “if there is such a thing left in MacAlpin.” Bliss’s reply is genuine, “I get you. You want to put on an old-home act.”

I think what Cather was trying to show is that there are levels of engaging with the past. Mrs. Ferguesson is firmly stuck in the past. It seems like she is willfully not wanting to grow as a human being. Is this due to the trauma of losing a child? Does she at some level believe that if she and other things don’t change that she’ll somehow be closer to Leslie? Is she clinically depressed due to being an empty nester and living with a husband who isn’t really present?

Knightly, on the other hand, is paying a nostalgic visit to the town and area she left years ago. She’s visiting the grave of an employee/friend, a young women who had promise but died so young. It’s a visit that she’s incorporated into a larger visit she’s on from Denver to Brunswick, Maine to “revisit the scenes of her childhood.” But you get the sense that Knightly’s life is far from over. She’s looking forward to seeing, “how much fifteen years had changed the land, the pupils, the teachers.” She’s a curious observer.

We don’t know exactly why Knightly is making this journey to the places of her past. Is she a writer now and revisiting places from her past in order to write about them as Sarah Orne Jewett once encouraged a younger Cather? It’s hard not to think of Jewett when Maine is repeated several times in this story. [Read about the Jewett – Cather connection here.]

So, what do you think of this story? Do you agree with Mrs. Ferguesson about the best years? Do you think Knightly’s best years are still ahead of her? I’m really curious about what you think!


New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one short story a month. I remind everyone what story we’re reading on the second Wednesday of the month and then share a response post on the fourth Wednesday of the month.


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Categories: Willa Cather

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4 replies

  1. Chris –

    The first pages of this story remind me of why Willa is so revered. She is magnificent at writing landscape as character. So effortlessly (it seems)! I agree that Leslie’s death was a major unexpected event. The question I had is, what purpose does it serve to kill off the promising, young teacher? Perhaps it is the only thing that pries Mrs. Ferguesson from her farm, despite her sentimentality. Change is presented as an inevitable and unforgiving companion, despite our efforts or intentions to temper it.

    I love the transformations within the story – the span of time and innovation – from horse and buggy to “otto.” Even the car “service” is a surprising but evolutionary concept included in this story. Cross-generational change is explored by the passing of the teaching mantle – Knightly to Leslie to Bliss. Willa describes the young Bliss as the “wide-awake, breezy girl” to which I assigned a nod to “Wide Awake Farm” and by extension, her pupilage under Leslie. As you observe, I concur the story is heavily laced with forward movement, the unstoppable change-train (the train whistles are another character present throughout the story), while the “elders” are prone to nostalgia no matter what.

    Thanks for your review!
    Jacqline

    • Yes, such magnificent writing — I felt like I was practically sitting beside Knightly in her buggy during that opening scene.

      I’m so glad you brought up the Wide Awake connection. I was a bit surprised and confused by the association between Bliss’s description as a “wide-awake” girl and the connection to Wide Awake Farm. At first, it seemed like a contradiction, but perhaps I was buying into the neighbor’s mocking attitude toward “Ferg” rather than seeing the positive qualities he may have passed on to his daughter who in turn had a positive influence on a younger Bliss. Perhaps it’s a way of showing that some ideas are before their time and take a while to ripen.

      Thanks for your reply, Jacqline, you’ve helped me consider the Bliss connection in a new way.

  2. Sorry I am writing this in June – May got away from me and I completely forgot to read The Best Years! I enjoyed this story, but was saddened by Leslie’s death. I felt that Willa Cather broke her covenant with the writer by killing off a main character. It does happen in novels and short stories,but I was so invested in Leslie (thinking it was her story), that I was taken aback. Once I realized it was Miss Knightly’s story, I was back on track. Thinking that Cather was writing about her brother, the chapter with Hector delivering telegrams on Christmas Eve made more sense. While reading it, I was unsure why it was included. As for time moving forward, I agree that Mrs. Ferguesson was stuck, but as all her children were grown and on their own, she was alone as her husband still was not spending much time at home. I felt more generously toward her, as she was not really happy in her new home. She would have liked her life to remain as it was in her old home. Not simply a housewife, she was involved in her community and immersed in causes while raising her children, and with the children out and on their own, there was an emptiness to her days. She did miss her daughter deeply and I think that her grief prevented her from moving forward and finding new things to do. Miss Knightly was so interesting to me. She was independent, had created a career for herself, starting in the country and moving to Denver. She kept track of her old home and the Ferguesson boys and was happy initially to see Mrs. Ferguesson. I think Willa Cather (my opinion only) was trying to show how a different path taken produces different Best Years in everyone’s life. Clearly, Mrs Ferguesson knew what were her best years. Leslie, with her short life, would have considered her current year of teaching her best year. Miss Knightly seemed to have several best years, back in MacAlpin and then in Denver, where she met her husband. Thanks for this reading project!

    • Hi, Kate! So glad you got to this story. I was so surprised by Leslie’s death. I/we must have been expecting a bit of a My Antonia love-fest over Leslie. I do like how you think about all the characters experiencing their own best years. I suppose Mr. Ferguesson is still out there enjoying his own best years. Haha. Not all that funny, as Mrs. Ferguesson is a bit abandoned. As for Miss Knightly, when I first finished the story, I had thought she was actually moving back to Maine — it got in my head that she was simply stopping off to visit since she was moving back east. Funny how those things get in our heads. When I started reading bits of the story to write my response to it, I was surprised to find she was going back to visit scenes from her childhood. I think it made me read her as not as nostalgic as she perhaps is.

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