Willa Cather Short Story Project Response Post
Hello Cather fans! Our story this month is “The Treasure of Far Island.”
In the reminder post, I wrote about being struck by the inclusion in this story of a line from Outlander’s “The Skye Boat Song” or, more directly, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone.”
For those of you who haven’t yet read the story, it is about Douglass, a nationally successful playwright returning to his Nebraska hometown after 12 years away. The story opens with a long paragraph describing Far Island and how generations of children played on it, its natural beauty and the freedom if offers stirring their imaginations.
Cather has a smooth transition from this birds-eye view of the sandbar to the train in which Douglass sits. The second paragraph begins with this sentence:
One afternoon, early in June, the Silvery Beaches of Far Island were glistening in the sun like pounded glass, and the same slanting yellow rays that scorched the sand beat upon the windows of the passenger train from the East as it swung into the Republican Valley from the uplands.(All quotes in this post are from the Delphi Collected Works of Willa Cather)
A more experienced Cather would probably tighten up or strip down that sentence, but I like how it takes the reader’s mind from one location to another.
As a boy, Douglass played on the sandbar island with his friend Margie who was a rough-n-tumble girl that he though would grow up to be a man. They had been best buds but did not keep in touch after he left for college. Margie, for her part, did not make contact with Douglass the one time she was in New York even though she saw him on the street. Weird. Plot device or perhaps an illusion to some story with which I am unfamiliar?
Anyway, they literally bump into one another in a dark hallway at Margie’s parent’s house. She is no longer a freckled “wild Indian” tomboy, but a tall white goddess. They instantly reconnect on an intellectual level, and Douglass feels a sense of power in their comradeship that is something like mind meld. He’s an artist, one who (according to the story) never grew up and still sees the world through creative child-like eyes. End of Part I.
In Part II, Douglass and Margie row out to the island to dig up a treasure they buried together just before he left for college. They reminisce and talk about what old friends are doing now. Margie says, “It is very sad to grow up.” They find the sun bleached old tree skeleton upon which they had marked an X for the treasure. “Near the cross were cut the initials of the entire pirate crew; some of them were cut on gravestones now.” Phew. That’s intense.
Is more than childhood buried?
Long story short, they discover they buried their childhood. Douglass recounts the day they buried the treasure and then had to wade back to shore, which frightened them both. He says Margie,
“cried in a different way from the way you sometimes cried when you hurt yourself, and I found that I loved you afraid better than I had ever loved you fearless, and in that moment we grew up, and shut the gates of Eden behind us, and our empire was at an end.”
His saying that he loved Margie afraid better than fearless made me uncomfortable and sad for the characters. Does seeing a female in fear make him feel like a man? Whatever that means. Note: they were 15 when that happened.
Have you heard of misattribution of arousal? It’s when someone is stimulated by something fearful or exciting and they transfer their own arousal to another person (it need not be sexual). Douglass and Margie were both afraid during that walk through the water. Did Margie cry differently? Or did Douglass’s own reaction cause him to misattribute his own fear onto Margie and think it a different kind of love? This falls inline with the damsel in distress trope.
What had been a story with some interesting gender play takes a turn toward heteronormative stereotypes as the two characters are pressured to grow up and assume acceptable roles. Margie had been sent to finishing school where she was turned into a proper looking and behaving young women of a certain class. In Part I my gaydar went off when Douglass openly uses his mother’s violet water, something that he would sneak as a boy. He is considered a great man, a famous young man who is not tempted by any of the wealthy or beautiful women in his circle.
Margie was initially an equal (genderless?) pirate, then a goddess, then a captive princess. At one point she also foreshadows some of Cather’s later leading women like Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! Douglass admires Margie’s ease of body and thinks, “There was a wholesomeness of the sun and soil in her that was utterly lacking in the women among whom he had lived for so long.”
A New Eden
In an interesting twist, as they come together, Douglass and Margie create a New Eden: “these two looked about over God’s world and saw that it was good.” Hello, Genesis. They move forward within the ancient story of creation. The ending is a classic love story scenario: “out of the east rose the same moon that has glorified all the romances of the world.”
I am fascinated by this story. There is so much push and pull within it, particularly with gender issues. I didn’t even bring up Pagie, a slender youth, looking like a nice girl masquerading as a rake?!?
What did you think of “The Treasure of Far Island”? 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!