Westward Ho!

First lady Laura Bush hosts a symposium on Women of the West in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2002. From right to left are: Mrs. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne Cheney, Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Joyce Rumsfeld, wife of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. AP

First lady Laura Bush celebrated the literary legacies of three American women whose books told millions of readers about the Western frontier of big skies and determined people.

In the third of a series of book talks, the first lady, a former teacher and librarian, presided Tuesday over a two-hour exploration of the lives and works of three "Women of the West," authors Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

"These women helped forge the Western identity," Mrs. Bush told a White House audience that included the wives of Cabinet members as well as literary experts, authors, book lovers and members of the Cather and Wilder families.

Through their words," she said, "we come to appreciate who we are as a people - and what we can achieve as a people."

Willa Cather, 1873-1947, wrote about life on the Nebraska prairies in works that include her 1913 novel, "O Pioneers."

The first lady said Cather described that world with "forlorn clarity" and quoted her as saying of the prairies, "here the earth is the floor of the sky."

Edna Ferber, 1885-1968, wrote of the west in such novels as "Cimarron" in 1932 and "Giant," the 1952 novel made into a popular motion picture.

The characters in "Giant," said Mrs. Bush, a native Texan, may well have been drawn from the people Ferber met on her first visit to Texas, "when she was reportedly shocked by the food, the heat and the swaggering arrogance of men in 10-gallon hats."

Many of Ferber's subjects were strong women. The first lady quoted a character in Cimarron as saying that although she did not belittle the achievements of pioneer men, "the sunbonnet as well as the sombrero has helped to settle this glorious land of ours."

The third author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957, was clearly a sentimental favorite.

The first lady said her own mother read to her from Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" series and that she read the stories to her students during her years as a teacher.

"In many ways, the stories that came from these three women of the West are elemental love stories," the first lady said.

"Their tales capture the complexities of any true love: resignation and hope; sorrow and joy; challenge and triumph."


By Lawrence L. Knutson
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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