Willa Cather was not a Catholic, but she wrote so seriously and sensitively about the Catholic Church—particularly in her historical novels Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock—that many readers assume she was.
Cather was born December 6, 1873, the first of Charles and Virginia Boak Cather’s seven children, in Back Creek, Virginia, a scruffy backcountry hamlet west of Winchester and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was one of the most bitterly torn regions of the Civil War, and the conflict had divided Cather’s family as it did most others. Although very few people there owned slaves, Cather’s maternal great-grandmother was one of those few; Cather remembered and memorialized her, together with her own ambivalent feelings about the Southern part of her past, in her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940). By Willa’s tenth year, after tuberculosis had claimed several members of the family, most of two generations of Cathers had moved west to the dryer air of the newly opened Nebraska Territory. Willa’s great childhood trauma was this dislocation—being uprooted from an established community in the flowering and forested Appalachian foothills to a bumptious new settlement in the endless sameness of a vista she described as being as “bare as a piece of sheet iron” (Willa Cather in Person, p. 10). But, as she later told an interviewer, she and the prairie “had it out together” that first year; she developed an unshakable passion for the shaggy grass country (p. 32).
After a year on a prairie farm, the Cathers moved into the booming railroad town of Red Cloud. Willa was precocious, outgoing, theatrical, and unintimidated by convention. She easily made friends with adults, and in adolescence apprenticed herself to the local physician. For this male-dominated profession she dressed the part: cropped her hair, wore trousers and suspenders, and signed her name “William Cather, M.D.” Not until 1892, when at the University of Nebraska she decided to become a writer and not a doctor, did she abandon cross-dressing.