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THE WORD ON THE STREET

Love letters to Jaffrey

Willa Cather.

Philip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection

Willa Cather.

Love letters to Jaffrey

Willa Cather, acclaimed for novels inspired by her childhood in Nebraska, once said that all her best books were written in Jaffrey, N.H. She loved that town, returning every summer or autumn for 15 years.

Her fondness for Jaffrey is an undercurrent in the newly published “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather” (Knopf), edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. The more than 500 letters include a handful Cather wrote while staying in Jaffrey.

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In one letter, she said a considerable part of “My Antonia” was “written in a little tent which I put up at the bottom of a hill.” “Inside it there was nothing but a table and a camp chair. I was living at the Shattuck Inn that summer and autumn, and every morning, after a very early breakfast, I used to go . . . to my tent. . . . No one disturbed me. I had two good hours of work and then, in the heat of the day, I used to climb the stone wall and go back to the Inn . . . ”

The following year she worked in the same tent, she writes, “but I stayed too late into October and got a bad touch of influenza. It was a very rainy autumn and the tent, having no floor, used to get pretty wet. After that year the Shattucks were kind enough to let me have several rooms on the top floor of the hotel, where there was no clattering of feet over my head, and I worked very happily there on other books.”

Cather, who is buried in Jaffrey, next to her longtime companion, Edith Lewis, once wrote to her brother Roscoe: “All my best books were written in Jaffrey, N.H., in a little room where I could almost touch the ceiling with my hand. I feel afraid in a big room. I like to be snug.”

In 1938, she gushed in a letter to Thornton Wilder about his play, “Our Town,” said to be modeled on Peterborough, not far from Jaffrey. She wrote that in his play “I find a complete expression of everything I have ever seen and felt and become friends with in that countryside and in all the little towns scattered about the foot of that mountain.”

A recurring character

Like Willa Cather, Ploughshares editor Ladette Randolph grew up in the wide open spaces of Nebraska. In response to an e-mail from me asking how Nebraska has influenced her as a writer, she wrote, “I had never thought about how much the landscape is a character in my work, until my novel ‘A Sandhills Ballad’ was published in 2009 and most reviewers noted the way landscape was a character. With ‘Haven’s Wake’ [published in March by University of Nebraska], I was more focused on the dynamics in a particular [Mennonite] family and hadn’t really thought I was writing about place, and yet again, so many readers have responded to the descriptions of eastern Nebraska. So, almost in spite of myself, I write about the landscape of Nebraska.”

Coming out

‘All my best books were written in Jaffrey, N.H.’

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 “Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate”by Lisa Prevost (Beacon)

 “The Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic”by Nora Gallagher (Knopf)

 “Deeply Odd”by Dean Koontz (Bantam)

Pick of the week

Alise Hamilton of Andover Bookstore in Andover recommends “The Blood of Heaven” by Kent Wascom (Grove): “Bloody and brilliant, this epic debut novel is a cinematic adventure that tears through the wilds of 19th-century west Florida and explores what it meant to come of age at the same time as America.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.
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