October 2010 is officially "My Antonia" month both at Fort Hays State University and in the Hays community thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from the community.
The grant is part of The Big Read program, which, according to the NEA Web site, is designed to restore reading to the center of American culture and bring together partners across the country to encourage reading for pleasure and enjoyment.
FHSU's grant will go toward activities and materials throughout the month to celebrate Willa Cather's "My Antonia," which tells the stories of several Czech, or Bohemian, immigrant families who start new lives in rural Nebraska.
"Hays was shaped by the same historical and climactic forces documented in Cather's Nebraska fiction," said Dr. Steven Trout, chair of the Department of English. "Hays is the quintessential Great Plains community. The world that Cather describes is our world."
"Students don't get a literary perspective on the High Plains from any of the other literature they read in school," he said. "It's a great opportunity for them to read classic literature that is set in their own backyard."
Activities open with an official ceremony in the Hays city hall, to which U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran; Secretary of Health and Human Services and former Kansas Gov., Kathleen Sebelius; former Kansas Education Commissioner Alexa Posney; and former First Lady Laura Bush will be invited.
Several Cather scholars will visit Hays to give presentations and workshops.
Dr. Steven Shively, associate professor of English at Utah State University and editor of the journal Teaching Cather, will give several presentations at four local schools and hold a workshop for teachers and school librarians on how to teach Cather's literature.
Dr. Evelyn Funda, associate professor of English at Utah State, will share her expertise on the Czech dimensions of Cather's novel through a series of presentations at the Ellis County Historical Society Museum, FHSU's Forsyth Library, the restored barracks building at Historic Fort Hays and the Victorian one-room schoolhouse preserved on the FHSU campus.
Citizens from Wilson, a destination for many Czech immigrants during the late 19th century, will contribute to the presentations, offering examples of Czech food, crafts and dance to bring the experiences of Cather's characters home to readers.
Filmmaker Joel Geyer, who directed the PBS documentary "Willa Cather: The Road is All," will show and discuss his film at the Fox Pavillion in downtown Hays.
"'The Road is All' will show readers how her writing isn't just regional fiction," said Trout. "The film shows how Cather was inspired by the different places and cultures she lived throughout her life."
Last but not least, a keynote panel discussion, featuring all four of these experts, will bring the scholarly portion of the Big Read program to a close.
All Big Read presentations, panel discussions and performances will be recorded and made available through cable television, streaming online video and podcast. Online book discussion groups will be open to all on Facebook and Twitter in case they cannot attend discussions in person.
Sigma Tau Delta, the national English honor society, will host a regional Sigma Tau Delta conference in Red Cloud, Neb., which is the location of the Willa Cather Foundation. Foundation and Sigma Tau Delta volunteers will organize activities for Hays High School and Thomas More Prep-Marian High School students, who will take a field trip to Red Cloud.
The Hays Recreation Commission will host an excursion for adults to the places described in "My Antonia." FHSU faculty members Dr. Greg Farley, professor of biological sciences, Dr. Steven Kite, assistant professor of history, and Trout will provide perspective from different disciplines.
"Literature, by its very nature, is interdisciplinary," said Trout. "The richer and more profound a piece of work is, the more ties it has to every other aspect of life."
Cather, an avid naturalist, documented the plants and animals from the various areas she visited and lived. To emphasize this facet of Cather's life, Farley will lead a discussion of flora and fauna at the Willa Cather Prairie, where many of the plants and animals she documented live.
Kite will discuss the historical context for "My Antonia" in Red Cloud's 19th-century train depot. Trout will explore the visual artworks and literacy traditions that inform Cather's writing at the Cather Museum.
Participants will tour Cather's childhood home and other sites in the novel and will meet with local townspeople who have memories of Cather and the individuals who inspired her characters.
In addition to the planned activities, the Big Read grant will also purchase 2,000 copies of Cather's novel for distribution to all middle and high school students in Hays. The remaining books will go to the public, with focus on local book clubs and senior citizens. Local bookstores will also sell "My Antonia" for a discounted price.
Spanish translations will be acquired via interlibrary loan, and HALO will work with the Hispanic community to maximize its involvement. In addition, some of the activities, including FHSU instructor of English Sharon Wilson's presentation on "My Antonia" and contemporary Hispanic-American literature, will target Hispanic readers specifically.
For more information about the Big Read program at FHSU, contact Trout at (786) 628-4285.