Ms. O’Hara (1885-1980) lived a varied life! Born into a family descended from William Penn, O’Hara grew up as a minister’s daughter in Brooklyn Heights, NY. She married a third cousin (against her father’s wishes) and moved with him to California at the start of the 20th century. They divorced, and she stayed on and worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1920’s. Marriage again uprooted her, and she moved to Wyoming with husband #2, a man who had worked with horses in the Army. This ranch and her experiences there form the not-so-well-disguised background and characters in the Wyoming trilogy of My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming, which were written while living there in the 1940’s. Divorcing again in 1947, Ms. O’Hara moved back east and settled in Maryland for the rest of her life.
Wyoming looms large in O’Hara’s musical output. She wrote a musical called “Oh! Wyoming! : a folk tale of the Western plains with music” in 1959; a song “Green Grass of Wyoming” in 1946 (the words of which are quoted in the novel of the same name), and another musical, “The Catch Colt” in the 1960’s. The Sunset Dance (which is in the second volume of the anthology) was published in the 1920’s, so it seems clear that her love of nature and the wide-open spaces of the west was long a source of her musical inspiration. After finding this piece and looking into O’Hara’s background for her biography, I decided that I really needed to read her most famous books.
So recently I finished reading the trilogy. One thing that stood out to me throughout was that sunrises, sunsets, and the weather itself almost became characters themselves in the books. My Friend Flicka begins the trilogy with a sunrise:
“High up on the long hill they called the Saddle Back, behind the ranch and the county road, the boy sat his horse, facing east, his eyes dazzled by the rising sun.
It seemed like a personage come to visit; appearing all of a sudden over the dark bank of clouds in the east, coming up over the edge of it smiling; bowing right and left; lighting up the whole world so that everything smiled back.”
There are numerous descriptions of sunsets, usually helping to set the mood for the action. In Thunderhead, while Nell and Rob share a strained car ride, O’Hara describes a sunset:
"It was a sunset of blue and silver. The light had gone away from the earth, leaving a sea of darkness beneath a sky as blue as turquoise. The eyes, straining to discover at what far-distant point that dark earth me the jeweled light of the sky, were lost in mystery. That was not all. There was a mile-long, torpedo-shaped lake of quicksilver some distance above the horizon, it’s edges as finely turned as if blown in glass, and below it, thrusting up from behind the earth, the tops of thunderheads burning white, like great alabaster lamps lit from within… The sunset dawned, burned, died at the slow swing of a gigantic, omnipotent arm."
In the last book, Nell writes to her son Howard the “sermon” she was too sick to give him before he left for school. Several threads come together:
"…just one more word about the way LOVE bestows happiness. When you come to think of it, there is nothing that bestows happiness except love. Love is implicit in all praise, in admiration. You know how, in yourself, when you see some glorious thing, a sunset, or a beautiful face, or some of these exquisite scenes of nature that you now and then come upon, a great tide of praise, love and happiness rises in your heart until it seems that it will burst, and tears push up behind your eyes! Or perhaps it is the grandeur of a symphony. Or perhaps it is great courage or a noble, unselfish deed—and again that bursting love fills that heart."
O'Hara delves more into her feelings about music in Green Grass of Wyoming. For me, one of the most striking scenes in the whole trilogy, and some of the most beautiful writing, describes Nell’s reaction to Rob’s gift of a piano:
"She did not know he was there. Her face was rapt. She sat with one elbow on the rack, her head leaning on her hand, the other hand playing that low fifth with a deep, gentle touch, over and over.
At last he couldn’t help asking her why she kept playing just those two notes, and why there were tears in her eyes…She explained hesitatingly, as if she were feeling her way through the thoughts. ‘I learned to do this when I was a child. By the hour. It is as if we know so small a part of life and of the universe and all that is. The world, all worlds, heaven, hell—whatever there is in the way of worlds and universes and life! How little we knew! We cannot know more. We’re not constituted to know more, and yet we can’t help wishing we could. Well, music hints at all we cannot know but just dream of. If I sit playing one chord over and over, listening with an absolutely blank mind, it does something to me. Deep down. I don’t know what, but it is a marvelous emotion. Everything falls away. And I begin to be aware of the depths of things—I don’t know what to call them. Perhaps beauty. Perhaps love. Perhaps an immensurable longing. Of the final deep and dreadful and marvelous things that would be too much for human beings to bear if they did know of them. Yes—that’s it, through these two notes, I get a message, a promise, a terrible enticement...‘"
Children's books? On some levels, yes. But in addition to the gripping stories of horses, adventure and growing up, O'Hara explores depths of feeling and relationship issues that surprised me as an adult. Reading them, The Sunset Dance became more to me than a cute tune that explores first and third position and is a really great opportunity for left hand octave frame work. It is all that, yes, but in the same way that these are much more than YA books, her awe of nature and love of music are going to stay with me when I play it.