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You can’t escape Willa Cather’s shadow if you’re a Nebraskan. Who can best “the golden light seemed to be rippling through the curly grass like the tide racing in” when it comes to nailing dawn in that state? Cather makes any competing author just want to write about New York City. But it takes an exile to really see a landscape. She was not Nebraskan, she left the rolling hills of Virginia behind for remote Red Cloud at the tender age of nine and stayed only a decade. I am a native, but I too have the advantage of an exile’s perspective, having fled to New York after my own time in a small Nebraskan town. Cather is the eldest of seven children, I am the eldest of nine. We both had a Latin tutor, we both feared “we might die in a cornfield”—her words. But I am Bohemian.

I think that with very important things we do not overcome our obstacles. We look at them fixedly for as long as is necessary until, if they are due to the powers of allusion, they disappear. – Simone Weil, from her letters

 

In the opening sequence of the latest X-Men movie, a young boy, Erik, is asked to move a coin across a table before the count of three or his mother will be shot. It is Poland, 1944, and Erik’s mother, emaciated and terrified and brutalized, tries to calm her son as he attempts to save her life. The ruthless Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon speaking in German!) begins the countdown. Erik concentrates, his face contorted, fingers trembling, watching the gun, then the unmoving coin, glancing over his shoulder at his mother, who tries in vain to reassure him (“everything is okay,” she repeats, mother to the last, knowing that they’ll both lose this battle). Erik tries desperately to use an extraordinary and unexplainable gift that the Nazis discovered during the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto, when he bent an iron gate as his parents were being dragged away. He cannot do it; the stress is too great. He fails the test and Shaw shoots his mother in the heart.

The Dream goes like this:

You write a book, a great book, and you send it out to whomever and a few weeks later, out of the blue, someone calls from New York City and says your name. Then the book gets printed and reviewed in the holy places and someone else calls, this time from Los Angeles, and says another name, one you’ve heard of, a movie star name, and the call gets put through and pretty soon there’s a major motion picture in production and your book is suddenly number one on the great list of What Matters. Then a third call comes from Chicago…