Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Sweet Water

Sweet Water. Small Nebraska town in which the story is set. In describing Sweet Water, Willa Cather drew upon memories of her own youth in Red Cloud, Nebraska; however, it should be noted that Nebraska once had a town called “Sweetwater” several counties to the north that may have provided a literal source, if not the inspiration, for Cather’s name for her fictional town. The historical Sweetwater, Nebraska, shared the decline of a host of similar small towns in the region. Like the town of the novel, but unlike Cather’s Red Cloud, it was on a railroad route leading to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the destination of some of Captain Forrester’s road-building.

Whatever Cather’s precise geographical inspirations, her understanding of her home region was precise, almost scientific. A Lost Lady provides her with an occasion to describe the physical and social character of rural Nebraska in a relatively early phase of European American settlement. Nevertheless, Cather’s description of the town and its physical surroundings is secondary to her portraits of Sweet Water’s inhabitants. For example, Niel Herbert, whose point of view is foremost in the novel, is a local boy whose widowed father is obliged to work in Denver after the collapse of the local family farm. Niel no longer lives in his “frail egg-shell house” but instead in a room behind his uncle’s law office. He has a special affinity for Captain Forrester’s home, with its aura of both social authority and feminine grace. His eventual departure from Sweet Water to study architecture reflects the formative role of the civilized spaces of the Forrester home and his desire to escape the lawyer’s career that seems ordained for him.

By leaving for Boston to study architecture, Niel sets himself apart from his near-contemporary, Ivy Peters, who as Mrs. Forrester’s tenant plows her meadows...

(The entire section is 787 words.)