In the tiny town of Sweet Water, in the open Western plains, freedom, toughness and human ingenuity ring supreme; for the inhabitants trying to cultivate and civilize the land and its outlaying citizens, those are paramount attributes that one must indeed have. But Sweet Water is different from other cowboy and Indian meccas, primarily because it has been somewhat tamed by the Transcontinental Railroad and the assorted luxury homes that stand solitarily in the vastness of the plains. Yet, the hardened iciness of such an existence is diminished by the warmth and sprightly charm of Marian Forrester, an aristocrat who brings the finer tastes to Sweet Water and its rough and tumble citizens. Married to Captain Daniel Forrester, she is fond of his pick-oneself-up-by-bootstraps mentality and of his pioneering spirit; he symbolizes something of the old order, the old value system, which is slowly ebbing away. And he is taking an epoch with him.
While there are many other characters, the primary ones are Mr. and Mrs. Forrester, Neil Herbert, Judge Pummeroy and Ivy Peters. Neil had a childhood crush for Mrs. Forrester or at least he had a crush for what she represented: femininity in the wilds, refinement, openness, stellar attributes that would make any boy or man be drawn to her. Over time, however, his perception of her changes when he witnesses some lascivious behavior that he would least of all expect from her. Because Mr. Forrester is so sick and Mrs. Forrester is always alone-especially during the winter season-she claws at whatever physical and mental love she can get-for her marriage is more like a friendship between a nurse and a patient. As that is so, Neil grows up with the Forresters; he knows all their secrets, all the ins and outs but doesn't say anything. He has his own idiots to contend with, particularly Ivy Peters, an arrogant boy, later a young man, who is cocky, cold and just not a likable guy. He resents Mrs. Forrester, seeing her as a snob, and he lets her know it when she falls on hard times, which happens bit by bit as the Old West gradually ceases to be what it once was and the magical pioneering spirit is slowly looked upon as something from a bygone era and nothing to be repeated.
A Lost Lady was a splendid read, not because Willa Cather captures the essence of loneliness as experienced by Mrs. Forrester and what that loneliness leads to, but she captures the period and the diminishment of the beauty of the hilly terrain, of campfires, of cowboys and Indians and of the fiery rough hewn landscapes that made the West and Midwest so magical and something beyond the human imagination. As wonderfully as it is rendered, it is also slowly yanked away to the point of Sweet Water being no more. Neil, who had some disappointment in Mrs. Forrester, because she so symbolized his childhood and of his environment, moved beyond it, reflecting only on the good memories, his judge/uncle Mr. Pommeroy, who encouraged him to study architecture and the whole mish mash of wonderfully peppered characters. People pass on and others, like Mrs. Forrester, find new joys in love. There is a lot to be said about A Lost Lady; it is sad, evocative of pleasant memories and some not so nice, and it conveys a very hard truth. Sometimes you simply can't go back, for nothing is forever.