“Jack-a-Boy” by Willa Cather

Spring has sprung here in Connecticut and I feel a pep in my step that even the sad ending of “Jack-a-Boy” could not dampen. Have you had a chance to read this month’s selection for the Willa Cather Short Story Project?

If not, you can read “Jack-a-Boy” over on the Willa Cather Archive: https://cather.unl.edu/writings/shortfiction/ss017

“Jack-a-Boy” is sentimental, probably too sappy for contemporary readers. A boy moves into an apartment building and warms the hearts and enlivens the souls of all of the dusty “old” adults who are set in their ways. The old professor, a piano teacher, and the Woman Nobody Called On are not initially pleased to see another child moving in. But Jack-a-Boy is special — he has a certain je ne sais quoi. He’s attentive and respectful with everyone. Just when it looks like this “effeminate” boy might also be a coward, he is observed launching himself into an attack of another boy who intentionally popped the balloon of a little girl. Jack-a-Boy is intellectual and sensitive but he is not afraid to express righteous anger and get physical. You can see the end coming for this kid early on.

As I mentioned in the reminder post, Cather based this little boy in part on her youngest brother, Jack, of whom she was very fond and once nursed through a serious illness. When the sick boy in the story says, “I like to have you hold me, ’cause I can just feel you love me out of your arms” you can’t help wonder if Cather’s little brother said that to her when she was nursing him.

Although the story is predictable, there is an ease and vitality to the writing. I was initially resistant to “Jack-a-Boy.” I don’t tend to enjoy stories about children — I’d fit right in with those dusty old residents — but I was soon swept along and surprised to find myself enjoying the story and charmed by the characters.

The Woman Nobody Called On is particularly intriguing. She is called the “strangest” of all of Jack-a-Boy’s friends. “She always kept a supply of his favorite bon-bons and was very careful to see that he did not eat too many. She knew so well what comes of having too much of what one likes, that Woman Nobody Called On.” I do not get the impression that the narrator is implying she eats too much candy. She is described as “very handsome with that large, blond, opulent sort of beauty that is seldom seen off the stage and that one somehow distrusts on sight.” Hmm. And her “alimony was said to be generous.” Other characters are surprised that Jack-a-Boy’s mother allows him to visit with her. What do you think her story is?

What did you think of “Jack-a-Boy”? Leave a comment or link below. Let’s chat!

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


  1. My thoughts on Jack-a-Boy: https://klasikfanda.blogspot.com/2023/03/jack-boy-by-willa-cather-short-story.html
    Indeed, The Woman Nobody Called On is intriguing. I’d guess she’s had too much amorous adventures in the past and one scandalous affair ruined her. Maybe that’s why she lived in the Terrace, because “people who live in terraces are not usually those who have made the most brilliant success in life”? Now that’s another subject for discussion. What kind of building are these terraces? A cheaper kind of apartment affordable for “unsuccessful people”?

    • Yes, I get the sense that they are very affordable, small apartments with a fancy name. A terrace, from what I understand, is an outdoor space attached to an apartment, either ground level or an open area at the top of a building that’s a communal space. When I googled “Windsor Terrace” a wide variety of average looking apartment complex were in the results.

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