"O Pioneers!"

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

In this, as in several other Cather novels, the desolate mid-western prairie land is the main character. It's a character so formidable that it seems to have a will and power well beyond that of the men and women who try to subdue it. Only time and perseverance can tame it, and even then only the hardiest of pioneers will thrive.

The story is set in Nebraska in the late 1800s. Alexandra Bergson's father is dying and he tells her brothers Oscar and Lou that their sister will inherit the farm he's been establishing since his emigration from Sweden. He has good reason to leave it in her hands - she's smarter, wiser, braver and stronger than either of her brothers. When drought has most of her neighbours selling and moving on, she buys more land and experiments with new farming methods because she believes the land will eventually begin to give back.

The story skips ahead 16 or so years to a point where Oscar and Lou are both married and living on their own farms. The youngest brother, Emil, who was a very young child when the story began, is away attending college, the first of the family to ever have that privilege. When he comes home he falls in love with a married woman and decides to flee the temptation by going to Mexico. A neighbour, Carl, who was Alexandra's best friend, returns after a long absence to renew their relationship.

Lou and Oscar become concerned that Alexandra might marry Carl, thus putting their children's inheritance of her farm in question, so they drive him away. Emil returns from Mexico to find he's still in love with Maria. Her husband, Frank, finds them together in the orchard, shooting and killing them both. Frank is sentenced to 10 years in a penitentiary.

In Cather's series of prairie novels human relationships seldom prosper. Alexandra finds a sort of contentment but it's her relationship with the land that is primary. She is kind and not a hard person, but there's little emotion in her character. Even her best relationships are lived out with a sort of resignation that suggests she expects little if anything from human beings; she is more stirred by the land and what it can offer her.

Willa Cather draws you straight into the heart of the land and compels you to accept it as a living, breathing, entity. When you turn the last page, you feel as if you've been there and experienced all the beauty and desolation, all the joy and the sorrow the land confers upon its settlers. You've breathed it, smelled it, loved it and feared it. It's almost addictive. It certainly keeps me coming back, which I will do until I come to the end of her books.


Judith said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one for the Classics Club. But, as it turns out, I'm schedule to read Cather's The Professor's House for May. This latter title seems quite a departure from her other books.
Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Ordinary Reader said...

Hi Judith. The Professor's House was indeed a departure from the three prairie based novels, all of which I loved. I enjoyed TPH, just maybe not quite as much. There's something about the prairie setting that mesmerizes me. Hope you enjoy this one. Thanks for stopping by!

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