This part covers the period of Niel Herbert’s youth from the age of twelve till he leaves for college at the age of twenty.
Summary of Chapter I
“Thirty or forty years ago” (p. 9) there was a house known for its hospitality along the Burlington Rail line between Omaha and Denver belonging to Captain Forrester, a railway builder. Even in the prairie states there were class distinctions. There were the workers and the gentlemen developers from the east, including the Burlington executives, who always stayed at Captain Forrester’s house at Sweet Water. The house itself was not that remarkable, but it sat on a beautiful hill past two creeks, near a cottonwood grove. Anyone else would have drained the marshland for farming, but Captain Forrester wanted it left in its natural state. He had no children and lived there in the summer with his wife, twenty-five years younger than himself, the perfect hostess to welcome important visitors, like Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado and Utah line. She was natural, beautiful, and “lady-like” (p. 13), with unforgettable sparkle that made men feel pampered and at home. The Captain had married her in California and brought her home a bride. They only lived there a few months each year, but after his fall from his horse in the mountains, they retired to this house where he grew old, and she grew even older.
Commentary on Chapter I
This brilliantly written short novel is economical, with every word and gesture etched in the mind to create a vivid picture of a people, place and a time. The opening image is an overview of the Forresters and their house at Sweet Water, the setting and main characters of this study. This introduction to the Forresters has the feeling of a fairytale. Though set in an historical period soon after the American railways had been built across the prairies to the West, the house at Sweet Water has a mythical quality. There is an elegiac tone to the story introduced in the first chapter, foreshadowing that these people and this time no longer exist. We know that whatever ideal function this house and couple provided is going to change, as we are warned about the Captain’s accident. Although he grew old in the house, she “grew older” (p. 14).
There is evidence already of why this might be. Mrs. Forrester is twenty-five years younger than the Captain, and they have no children. Yet in this idyllic remembrance, they entertain important people, and they themselves travel and obviously have money. We know the Captain is part of the pioneering force that settled the west, building the great railroads. And his wife is a spontaneous and charming upper-class girl from California. When she is chased by a bull in the pasture, she is still lady-like and adorable. She is attractive, and she knows it. Men are flattered by her attention. Even the sober Lincoln banker had to meet “the gay challenge in her eyes” (p. 12). She does not seem like a quiet or docile wife.
This all happened “thirty or forty years ago” which implies something like “once upon a time” in American history. The author, writing in the nineteen twenties, refers to the late nineteenth century when the western frontier is in the last period of settlement. We find out later the Captain had been in the Civil War and built the railroads after that. He is of the generation of builders, a group of heroic spirits that the author idealizes. The time of the story looks back to the pioneering days, but it occurs as the last memorial to those days, just as the country is shifting into more modern times at the turn of the century. The Forresters and the house at Sweet Water are a memorial to the earlier gracious ways of the railway aristocracy, but even more than that, to the spirit of those who build something as a legacy for future generations. For instance, it was not the house itself that was remarkable, but “the people who lived there made it seem much larger and finer than it was” (p. 10).