Review — ‘O Pioneers!’ by Willa Cather

“There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little ot meet the sun. The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other. You feel in the atmosphere the same tonic, puissant quality that is in the tilth, the same strength and resoluteness. (39)

o-pioneersThere are a few things that make me miss Nebraska. One is watching Husker football on TV in the fall and reminiscing about having to get to the stadium three hours ahead of time to get a good seat in the student section (dedication or insanity — I’m not sure which). Another is seeing the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo (the best zoo in the world and I will fight you on that) post adorable lion cub photos on Facebook.

Then there is Nebraska literature. Though I spent about eight years of my life in the state (four years during grade school and four years for college), I never really sought out enough literature written by Nebraskan authors. So I figure now was as good a time as any to pick up “O Pioneers!” by Willa Cather.

Published in 1913 and described as Cather’s first great novel, the novel follows heroine Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the Nebraska prairie in Hanover and grows up to make the family farm prosperous. Like with many success stories, this is darkened by loss and Alexandra must look beyond her blind love of the land before it’s too late.

I started reading this on the train into work and had finished the novel by 11 later that night. All during work, I was tempted to pick it back up again instead of working but I refrained. With each page, I felt as if I were reading the Little House books again or the Dear America book “My Face to the Wind.” There’s something about reading novels about the prairie that brings me back to my early reading days.

Alexandra is another strong, well-written character that I found myself relating with. She is a strong-willed and determined woman who works to make sure her father’s land prospers after his death. Alexandra is very devoted to the land, as well as making sure her youngest brother Emil can go to university and not be limited to working on the farm for the rest of his life. Her intelligence and knowledge of the land is why her father left her to run the farm after his death and not her two brothers Oscar and Lou. Her blind side was that she does not sense other people’s feelings, not even her own. It takes her nearly twenty years (or most of the novel) to realize she loves Carl Linstrum, and she misses Emil falling in love with the unhappily married Marie Shabata.

Her training had been toward the end of making her proficient in what she had undertaken to do. Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. (105)

Been there, Alexandra. Actually, I’m still at that point even though I’ve been trying to do better about perceiving others’ feelings. The more I read, the more I saw her as possibly asexual. The closest that Cather gets to revealing any thoughts Alexandra might have for Carl (or anyone really) is when she describes “an illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong” (106). I saw this passage as her being tired from working the farm for so long and by herself that she was envisioning someone coming and unburdening her.

There are many moments when you feel Alexandra’s loneliness — her brothers Oscar and Lou are both married, the maids she hires from Sweden usually marry someone and leave after a few years, and Emil leaves her both to go to school and to go to Mexico for a year. When Carl Linstrum returns, she gains that companionship that she’s wanted but didn’t necessarily realize until Lou and Oscar accused Carl of trying to marry her for her money.

I’ve been going back through different passages in this book, and I can never quite believe how beautiful Cather’s writing is. I felt as if I were there on the Nebraska prairie with each of the characters.

Carl sat musing until the sun leaped above the prairie, and in the grass about him all the small creatures of day began to tune their tiny instruments. Birds and insects without number began to chirp, to twitter, to snap and whistle, to make all manner of fresh shrill noises. The pasture was flooded with light; every clump of ironweed and snow-on-the-mountain threw a long shadow, and the golden light seemed to be rippling through the curly grass like the tide racing in. (64-65)

Sometimes I wonder why this book wasn’t an option during my junior year of high school when we were focusing on American literature. I would have much rather have read this than “Of Mice and Men,” which I also greatly enjoyed reading. I can’t wait to read more of Cather’s writing, especially rereading “O Pioneers!”

This land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while. —Alexandra Bergson, 158

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