Cather, “The Joy of Nelly Deane” (1911)

Red Cloud, Nebraska.

A moving, sad story, a touch tedious and out of focus in parts but heartbreaking as Margaret, the narrator, tells of her friendship with Nelly, the prettiest, most free-spirited girl in Riverbend, a girl of “unquenshable joy.” The scene opens as the girls are in a play. Even then Nelly is pursued by the hard and unimaginative Scott Spinny though her eyes are on Guy Franklin. Margaret spends the night with her as she didn’t want Spinny to walk her home alone. There is an undercurrent of something between Margaret and Nelly, though only Margaret projects it. It’s unspoken, unacted upon. Nelly reveals that she’s engaged to Guy Franklin, but for an unexplained reason that ends up going nowhere. Margaret and her family move to Denver, Nelly teaches sixth grade. Eight years later, Spinny manages to put his grip into her, though he seems to have nothing in common with her. He wants to change her, as do too many people in town no matter how much they love her. They want her foremost to be a Baptist, not a Methodist, and she is baptized, a ceremony Margaret attends in a visit before the marriage: “Such a sad, sad visit! She seemed changed–a little embarrassed and quietly despairing.” She had begun to die. As she prepared for the baptism, “she looked so little and meek and chastened!” Margaret in Rome 10 years later gets a letter from Mrs. Dow back in Riverbend. Nelly died a few days after giving birth to a boy, her second child. She had an eight year old daughter. Margaret, homesick–there is not one note of sorrow over the death of Nell, strangely–returns to Riverbend and sees the two children, seeing nelly in them and learning that Spinny’s obtuseness, his falling out with the two experienced doctors in town, had resulted in Nelly being cared for by a boy just out of med school who didn’t know what he was doing. Her death was preventable. But she had died long before, had it not been for her children. A town can murder a spirit like Nelly’s. The story is not distant from the lost dreams of Cather’s “Enchanted Bluff.”

Century, October 1911