“The Affair at Grover Station” by Willa Cather


The Affair at Grover Station

Up first this year for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “The Affair at Grover Station.” As mentioned in the reminder post, the story was published in two parts in The Library, on June 16 and 23, 1900. The image above is from The Library (see it and the original printing of the story on the Willa Cather Archive).

It might be hard to make out the details of this drawing, but it shows a line of telegraph poles standing beside the railroad tracks. The first paragraph sets up the framework of the story. The unnamed narrator is retelling a story about a murder shared to him by his old college friend, ‘Terrapin’ Rodgers. In the second paragraph, Cather sets the story in a landscape. The narrator and Rodgers are on a train heading from Sterling, Colorado to Cheyenne, Wyoming:

“When the train pulled out of Grover Station, we were sitting smoking on the rear platform, watching the pale yellow disc of the moon that was just rising and that drenched the naked, grey plains in a soft lemon-coloured light. The telegraph poles scored the sky like a musical staff as they flashed by, and the stars, seen between the wires, looked like the notes of some erratic symphony. The stillnewss of the night and the loneliness and barrenness of the plains were conducive to an uncanny train of thought”

Cather’s brother Douglass worked for the Burlington in Cheyenne. In a footnote in Mildred Bennett’s Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, she writes that Cather’s sister Elsie told her that Douglas had helped with this story. No doubt the technical train procedures and what railroad employees in certain positions could make happen are probably accurate. Cather was also a smoker. I can picture her sitting on the back of the train, smoking with her brother as they watched the moon rise.

Unfortunately, the racist depictions of Freymark, the villain, mar the story for contemporary readers. Freymark “passes” as an Alsatian Jew, but when it is found out he is of Chinese heritage and had engaged in shady behavior, the white men of the story decide they must protect white womanhood, “One thing was sure: Miss Masterson must be informed of the matter at once.” Masterson is the wealthy, cultured love interest of both Freymark and Larry O’Toole (the murder victim).

Freymark’s father was a French solider who “bought a Chinese slave girl” with whom he had a child and later marries. (So at least he’s not a “bastard” on top of being Chinese?) The descriptions of Freymark made me think back to Cather’s 1893 story, “A Son of the Celestial,” and the physical and cultural stereotypes of Chinese in that story. There is also a strong connection to her story “The Dance at Chevalier,” published just two months prior in The Library, which is about a love triangle between an Irish man, a Mexican man, and a French woman.

I have grown a bit wary and weary of reading too much biography into an author’s literary creations, but there is a lot of Cather criticism that does just that. It has been documented that Cather used people and places and situations from her life in her fiction. One of Cather’s loves was a woman named Isabelle McClung. They met in 1899 and Cather lived in the McClung’s Pittsburgh family home from 1901-1906. [Read Sue Hallgarth’s excellent blog post for more details].

Isabelle was cultured and came from a wealthy family. Cather was of Irish heritage. Lesbians or queer writers have often masked their feelings in fiction. In this case, I can’t help but wonder about “The Dance at Chevalier” and “The Affair at Grover Station” where an Irish person/Cather loves a wealthy, cultured person/Isabelle, and is murdered by an “undesirable” foreigner/not just a man but the repressive regime of heteronormativity. Okay, the third leg of my theory is a bit illogical. It’s not like foreigners represent heteronormativity and Anglo Americans queerness. It’s more logical to interpret the villains as threats to white supremacy and the purity of white women. I’ll have to ponder my thoughts.

I was planning to write more about the murder and ghost aspect of the story, but apparently my mind had other ideas this morning. What do you think of “The Affair at Grover Station”?

New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!


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