Part I, Chapter 1
The novel introduces the reader to a period thirty to forty years before the present narration. The Forrester house, in a town called Sweet Water, is renowned among railway executives throughout its area as being one of the most hospitable places to stay. Mr. Forrester is a retired railway man who made enough money to live well, and his wife is a beautiful woman twenty-five years younger who charms all of the railroad executives that come to visit them. She is described as exceedingly aristocratic, and her husband tells us she is able to act "lady-like" even while being chased by a bull.
A Lost Lady begins by defining two distinct classes of society, the Atlantic aristocrats and the homesteaders. "There were then two distinct social strata in the prairie States; the homesteaders and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to "develop our great West" as they used to tell us" (3). Notice the use of language here, we are immediately introduced to a form of ironic commentary. Whose words are these, to "develop our great West"? There is ambiguity as to whether they the words of the speculators, the homesteaders, or the narrator.
The first image of wealth and elevated society we are given is not of money, but rather of an undrained marsh. A marsh is ordinarily identified with rotting vegetation, and in this novel represents an untapped financial resource. It is therefore a symbol of waste, land that could be productive but it is kept for aesthetic value. The later destruction of the marsh will help identify the transition of power from one cultural era to another.
The title of the book, "Lost Lady" has many interesting interpretations throughout the novel. At any time "lost" can mean the pioneering era, Mrs. Forrester, or even Niel's perception of Mrs. Forrester. "Lady" is equally ambiguous. Mrs. Forrester represents a "lady" to Niel, but other views of her present a different perspective. It is important to pay close attention to when things are lost and to when we have references to a lady while reading this novel.
The description that Willa Cather gives of Captain Forrester is one of an already defeated man. He is described by what he used to be, not what he is. His further decline throughout the novel is symbolized by his reduction to first one crutch, then two. This is juxtaposed with the rise of Ivy Peters into a powerful man, showing the transition from one world to another.
Part I, Chapter 2
A group of boys, including Niel Herbert and George Adams, arrive at Mrs. Forresters house and politely ask to be allowed to fish in the marsh and have a picnic in the grove. They play most of the morning and during their lunch break Mrs. Forrester brings them all cookies. After she leaves, they are interrupted by the arrival of an ugly boy nicknamed Poison Ivy who is known to be a dog-killer. His real name is Ivy Peters, and he carries a gun in order to hunt on the property, although the other boys point out that hunting is forbidden on the Forrester lands.
Ivy spots a female woodpecker and shoots it down with a slingshot. He then grabs it once it wakes up, holds it head carefully between his fingers, and slits both of its eyes with a tiny blade. Ivy then releases the bird, and they watch it flounder in the air, hitting the branches and blindly whirling about. The bird finally finds its hole and enters it. In spite of being used to killing things, the boys take pity on the bird and Niel starts to climb the tree in order to put it out of its misery. He loses his balance near the top and falls, ending up lying without moving at his companions' feet.
Ivy carries Niel to the house where Mrs. Forrester has them call the doctor. She then kicks the other boys out of the house and takes care of Niel herself. He soon wakes up and realizes he has a broken arm, but he is comforted by the nice surroundings. The doctor arrives, fixes up his arm, and drives him home. Niel hates his own place, where his widower father has a relative take care of the housekeeping. Niel's family is poor, but distinguished by being related to Judge Pommeroy who serves as a lawyer for Captain Forrester.
The initial description of the boys here is similar to that of Tom Sawyer. They are barefoot, carrying fishing rods and "just little boys from the town" (8). This is immediately followed with the extreme horror of Ivy cutting the bird's eyes. From this point on the reader sits on edge, aware that behind every idyllic scene is the possibility of grotesque violence.
It is significant that the woodpecker is female. One of the recurring images of the novel is an act of cutting whenever a woman is present in a sexual context. This is the first connection between females and cutting, an image that will occur in all of the sensual scenes between women and men, eventually becoming part of the male/female interaction. Other contexts to watch for this are when Ellinger and Mrs. Forrester are together in the woods and later when Niel cuts the phone wire.
Niel's act of falling is cleverly interposed between a short and then a long description of Captain Forrester's falling. This sense of falling is important because it leads to all the main relationships in the novel. For example, we are later told that Mrs. Forrester meets the Captain after she has fallen from a cliff. Thus when Niel is carried to Mrs. Forrester's bed it is a mimic of the later story of her being carried back to Captain Forrester's camp.
Notice also that Cather is combining images of violence and pain with sexual appeal and marriage. Niel has broken his arm, but all he cares about is the beauty of the Forrester's house and the smell of Mrs. Forrester. Her caring for him is similar to when Captain Forrester cared for her after rescuing her. Here we have the sense of mother and boy, but in Mrs. Forrester's tale we are aware of man and woman, later to be man and wife.
A distinction is drawn here between the drawing room and the outside world. When Mrs. Forrester kicks Ivy Peters out of her house, she is carefully separating the romantic interior from the outside violence struggling to get in. The fact that Ivy will eventually succeed in not only entering the house but also in dominating it is one of the central themes of the novel. His desire to harm the crafted image that the Forresters evoke is largely produced by his ejection in this scene.
It is important to notice here that Mrs. Forrester, in noticing the boys, distinguishes between Niel and George and the other "little boys". This distinction is based on their family reputations; Niel is the nephew of the local Judge, and George is the son of a wealthy rancher. An important background conflict in the novel is the loss of this distinction. As the nation expands, these fine small families will eventually be lumped into the same category as the other families. It is partially against this loss of identity that Niel is rebelling against when he later tries to preserve the facade that the Forresters create.
Part I, Chapter 3
Over the next few years Niel does not get to see too much of Mrs. Forrester, although he is always invited to her house for parties and social events. The town of Sweet Water has started falling apart, with most of the gentleman ranchers leaving and even Niel's father being forced to sell his house and move to Denver. Niel remains as an apprentice lawyer with his uncle, Judge Pommeroy. By the time he is nineteen, he is living in a room behind the law offices and keeping the place immaculately clean. Even his uncle has grown proud of him over the years.
One afternoon before Christmas Niel is working in his uncle's offices when Mrs. Forrester arrives. She invites both the Judge and Niel to come dine with her the next evening, and then makes Niel leave the office in order to drive her home. Mrs. Forrester tells Niel that the Ogdens are coming, and that it will be his job to entertain their daughter, a girl of nineteen. When they arrive at her place she invites him in and tells him that she could not go on vacation this year due to financial constraints. She also mentions that Captain Forrester is getting much older and is starting to have problems with his health.
Niel's perception of Mrs. Forrester is one of the great dramatic elements of the novel. He serves as the innocent observer with romantic illusions. The unfortunate tragedy of the novel is that we quickly become aware that this illusion will soon turn to disillusionment. "He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognized her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known" (33). The reader will soon discover in the next few chapters that this view of her is nonsense, a romanticized delusion.