Dave's Reviews > The Troll Garden: Short Stories

The Troll Garden by Willa Cather
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Nov 20, 09

bookshelves: literature, fiction
Read in November, 2009

“The Troll Garden and Selected Stories” by Willa Cather contains some of her earliest writing. This collection includes the entirety of her 1905 collection “The Troll Garden”, along with her earliest nationally published story “On the Divide”, “Eric Hermannson’s Soul”, another very early story, “The Enchanted Bluff”, and “The Bohemian Girl”, two other early Cather stories that were published after “The Troll Garden”. The four additional stories all fall into her frontier life stories for which she is best known.

“On the Divide” – A story which was first published in January of 1896, and was her first story published in a national magazine, “Overland Monthly”. In this story, Canute, a man who spent the majority of his life in Sweden before coming to America to farm, is in a position where he drinks to avoid the boredom. He has his eyes set on Lena, a young woman who is more interested in having some fun than marrying Canute, though she seems to believe that eventually she will get around to getting married to him. Canute gets tired of her teasing, and takes her by force to his home, and then goes to get a priest there as well. He then forces a marriage, but then he stays outside. His refusal to enter makes her lonely, so she decides to consent, and after refusing his offers of bringing others to her, she finds him laying in the snow sobbing when she opens the door for him to enter after telling him that she would prefer him to any other.

“Eric Hermannson’s Soul” – Published originally in “Cosmopolitan” in April of 1900. In this story, Eric Hermannson enjoys his music and the attentions of women, but he starts to feel that it is going to catch up to him, thanks to the prayers of his mother who warns him of the loss of his soul. Eric then gives up on music and women when he takes seeing a rattlesnake while on a date as an ill omen. Two years later, when he meets Margaret, she is able to convince him to go to a dance, and he agrees, believing that it damns his soul. After, she tells him that she is soon to leave (which she knew all along), and that she will not return. He is then asked by his pastor whether he danced, and Eric readily admits it, though he believes it will set his soul “back a thousand years from God”.

“The Enchanted Bluff” – Published originally in “Harper’s” in April of 1909, in this story, six boys talk about adventures they would like to have, and when the story of the Enchanted Bluff is told, they agree to a pact to try to go there, and that the first one will tell the others of what they find. Much later, when they are all adults and all have taken different paths with their lives, none of them has made it, though one has passed on the spirit of the adventure to his son. One of my favorite stories in this book, it captures the childhood innocence of a bygone era beautifully.

“The Bohemian Girl” – This is the longest story in the collection and was originally published in “McClure’s” in August of 1912. In this story, Nils Ericson returns to the home of his youth. Nils is the son who went away, while his brothers have received land from their father. They fear Nils, because they are worried that he may have the second will, which his father made but has been missing. But Nils has returned to see Clara, a woman he fell in love with years before, and who his brother Olaf has married. Nils has come to realize that he loves Clara, and he wants her to run away with him.

“Flavia and Her Artists” – This story was originally published in this collection. Flavia likes to put herself at the center of society by inviting noteworthy people to her house parties, though her husband, Arthur, doesn’t fit in with them. In this case, it is a group which consists of several noteworthy people, including M. Roux, a novelist. It also includes Imogen Willard, the narrator of the story, who remembers Flavia’s husband from her childhood. M. Roux leaves much earlier than the other guests, and when an article he writes satirizes Flavia mercilessly, Imogen tries to keep it from Arthur, but he reads it and then destroys it so that Flavia will not read it. The other guests are aware of it though, and when the subject of M. Roux comes up, Imogen believes that she notices a general agreement with what he had done. Arthur does not put up with their falseness though, and does to M. Roux in front of the guests what M. Roux had done to Flavia. When many of the guests decide to leave, Flavia mistakenly believes that it is her husband who has acted improperly.

“The Sculptor’s Funeral” – This story was originally published in McClure’s Magazine in January of 1905. When Harvey Merrick’s body returns for burial to the small town in Kansas where he grew up, the locals make fun of him, even though he was a famed sculptor. Only two people appear to truly grieve the loss, his student Henry Steavens, and his old friend, Jim Laird, who finally hears enough of the other’s attacks on Harvey, and he lets them know exactly how much better Harvey was than any of them.

“’A Death in the Desert’” – This story was originally published in “Scribner’s” in January of 1903. This story centers on Everett Hilgarde, a man who is often mistaken for his brother Adriance, who is a famous composer. On a trip to Wyoming, he is surprised to see Katharine Gaylord, a singer who used to work with his brother, and who he knew and admired when he was much younger. They start to meet regularly, and he learns that she is fatally ill. He lets Adriance know of her situation, and his brother sends her a letter and his most recent composition.

“The Garden Lodge” – Caronline Noble used to be a musician, and recently entertained a famous tenor, Raymond d’Esquerre. His visit has reminded her of her days when she was a musician, and less practical. She at first is opposed to her husband wanting to tear down the garden lodge where she spent time with Raymond d’Esquerre, but after reflection and a night’s sleep, she returns to the more practical world which has become her life after music.

“The Marriage of Phaedra” – The narrator, MacMaster, sets out to write the biography of Hugh Treffinger, a painter who has just passed away. He becomes involved in the dealing with his unfinished work, “The Marriage of Phaedra”. Hugh Treffinger’s valet and assistant, James, believes that Hugh did not want it to be sold, as it was unfinished, but an art dealer from Melbourne has offered Hugh’s wife a lot of money for it.

“A Wagner Matinee” – First published in “Everybody’s Magazine” in February of 1904, this story is a wonderful story about a young man in Boston (Clark) who learns that his aunt from Nebraska is coming to visit. His aunt Georgiana lived in Boston a long time ago, and she loved music, so he arranges to take her to a concert. When she arrives, she is much changed and he is worried about how she will react to the event, as she seems to have lost all of what she once was. As the concert goes on, he notices more and more how it seems to be reaching her. A very touching story, and one of my favourites in this collection.

“Paul’s Case” – This story was first published in McClure’s Magazine in May of 1905. This story starts in Pittsburgh, and opens with Paul meeting with the Principal of his school and the teachers that had him suspended. Paul’s troubles don’t end there, as he is drawn to the performing arts, ushering at Carnegie Hall, but his father isn’t pleased with Paul’s attitude, so he puts him to work at his company, while forcing him to give up his job at Carnegie Hall. Paul steals and runs away to New York to escape the life he hates. He watches the papers for signs that they know where he is, and when he sees them he is afraid of what they will do. He is resolved in what to do, and carries out his plan. This is an interesting story, and the comparison between flowers in winter and Paul’s life is a good one.

One could argue that the first four stories in this collection don’t fit with those in “The Troll Garden”, and that is certainly true. However, at the same time, “The Troll Garden” was a short collection, and it is nice to see Willa Cather’s other early work included in a collection, and they are a better representation of the fiction for which Cather is most well known, i.e. the stories from the plains and farms of middle America. While some of the stories from “The Troll Garden” are set in those areas, the common theme which runs through those stories is artists. I would take this collection over one which just includes “The Troll Garden”, but both are very good.
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