Books Read in 2016: ‘O Pioneers!’ by Willa Cather #amreading
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book Summary from Audible:
On the harsh and wild frontier of the American West, Alexandra Bergson struggles to fulfill her father’s dying wish of establishing his family on the Nebraska table lands. Through hard times and abundant, through love and loss, through joy and suffering, Alexandra challenges both her family and the land in her quiet, honest way. Cather’s realistic depiction of life on the prairie is anchored by a smart, strong, independent heroine and heart-achingly beautiful prose which evokes both the melancholy and the awe-inspiring beauty of middle America at the turn of the century.
O Pioneers!, published in 1913, is the first book in Willa Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, followed by Song of the Lark and My Ántonia. Although Cather was born on a Virginia estate that had been in the Cather family for generations, when she was nine years old, her father relocated the family to Nebraska in 1883. He tried farming for a while before moving into the town of Red Cloud where he set up an insurance office. They spent the rest of her adolescence in Nebraska, and in 1894, Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska. After graduating, Cather returned east to pursue a career in journalism; but it was during this time that she also started writing fiction—short stories at first, many of them set in the western prairies she was so familiar with. Although the magazine-serialized Alexander’s Bridge was Cather’s first novel, O Pioneers! was the one that put Cather on the map of American literature, with both critical acclaim and commercial success (Ahern).
Perhaps, as Jo March learned in Little Women, Cather’s pioneering book found its audience and survives as a classic of American literature today because she wrote from the heart—she returned to her Nebraska roots and wrote what she knew. In an interview about the book’s success, Cather was quoted as saying, “I decided not to ‘write’ at all—simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I’d forgotten” (Slote xliv). Memory, people, and places—or, at least, one place—are, indeed, the driving force of this book. Above and beyond anything else, O Pioneers! is about relationships. Throughout the book, broken into five parts and multiple chapters, Cather explores three types of relationships: the familial and the romantic, as well as the relationship between the characters and the land itself.
Exploring familial relationships is not uncommon in literature; in fact, much of what is considered classic literature depends on exploring this topic. In O Pioneers!, we get to experience family as it grows and changes. The first indication we get of the impact that familial relationships will have is the interaction between Alexandra Bergson, a twenty-one-year-old woman, and her five-year-old brother Emil. Both the children of a Swedish immigrant to Nebraska, it’s as if they’re from two different generations—almost from two different families, and not just because of their age difference. Alexandra remembers living in Sweden. She knows what it was like for her father, whose family owned a shipbuilding business, to make the decision to relocate his family halfway across the world and become a farmer—an unknown profession in an unknown and unbroken land. There are two brothers between Alexandra and Emil—Lou and Oscar—and two sons born and died at a young age between the boys and Emil. Their father, who is dying as the book opens, tells Lou and Oscar to be led by their sister and to take care of their mother and, grudgingly, they agree. As the story progresses, we skip forward sixteen years. Alexandra’s no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to investment and farming has made her, as well as Lou and Oscar, very wealthy, successful farmers. Lou and Oscar, however, take Alexandra for granted and believe that everything she has was gained only through their own hard work—not taking into account all of her business acumen and introduction of modern and scientific farming and livestock techniques. One of the brothers has embraced this success—losing his accent and being embarrassed by anything that would remind others of their rustic/immigrant background; the other still speaks with a heavy accent and stubbornly keeps the old customs. Emil, however, has just graduated from college and returned home until he decides what he wants to do next. He is as different from his three siblings as it is possible to be. And Alexandra not only encourages this, but has specifically worked for this. All the sacrifices she’s made throughout her life have been to give her baby brother all the opportunities he could possibly have. Because of this, because there has never been any responsibility put on him, because he’s never had to work the farms (other than mowing, he’s not seen doing any physical labor), Emil is rudderless, discontent, and inchoate. Alexandra still sees him—and treats him—like a little boy. She takes great pleasure in everything he does, without concern for the fact that he has no goals, no idea of what he wants to do in life. All she cares is that he didn’t have to grow up the way she, Lou, and Oscar did. For their part, Lou and Oscar are jealous of Emil, resenting that he didn’t have to break his back on the farms the way they did in order to scratch a living out of the prairie.
Both complicating and complementing the family relationships are those with outsiders—the ones that eventually become romantic. Marie Tovesky is introduced in the first chapter as a little china doll who attracts the notice—and attention—of all the men at the shop in town. She is bright and forward and shares the candy the men give her with Emil, who is two years her junior. It is also in this chapter that we meet Carl Linstrum, the late-teenaged son of the Bergsons’ neighbors, who helps rescue Emil’s kitten from up on a telegraph pole, and then drives the two Bergsons home. Both Marie and Carl leave the area shortly after this introduction, but are reintroduced after the sixteen-year time gap. Marie is now married and living on what was formerly the Linstrums’ farm; Carl returns after having failed at a job back East and is now on his way to the gold fields in Alaska. Because Alexandra is blind to Emil’s faults, ever since Emil returned from college, she has been pushing Emil and Marie together as often as possible, viewing them more as playmates than man and woman—something that will come back to haunt her. When Carl returns, he is greeted as a dear friend . . . who throughout a month’s visit becomes an important part of Alexandra’s life, and someone she doesn’t want to give up. She wants Carl to stay—forever, though she does not say it in so many words. When Lou and Oscar realize this is happening, they try to shame Alexandra into turning Carl away—reminding her she is almost forty years old, that Carl is more than four years younger, and telling her he’s just trying to marry her for her money/land because he’s failed at everything else. Carl, to whom Oscar and Lou also talk, and who has always loved Alexandra, realizes that for his own self-worth, he needs to make something of himself before he’d be worthy of Alexandra—he doesn’t want her to marry him/support him out of pity. So he goes off to Seattle, where he’ll spend the winter before heading to Alaska. Of course Alexandra’s throwing together of Emil and Marie doesn’t turn out well—not for two young people who had feelings for each other all through childhood before she ran off and married a handsome city boy she met while in boarding school. When Carl learns of what happened, he immediately returns to Nebraska, and he and Alexandra realize that it doesn’t matter which one of them has the money, nor what other people—even her brothers—think, they’re meant to be together.
In Carl and Alexandra’s long talks, it’s mentioned how she’s always been in tune with—tied to—the land, while Carl isn’t. Therefore, it was Alexandra who was able to see the opportunity to buy up farms as others failed and moved away. She had an instinct that beneath the twisted roots and tangled fronds of the prairie grasses, there was good land just waiting to be worked. And, eventually, she coaxed it into becoming some of the most fertile farmland in the country, dragging her brothers and neighbors along with her kicking and screaming. She didn’t implement new techniques or seek out those with new scientific discoveries (like alfalfa) because she just thought they were interesting, she did it because she felt like the land was calling for it. Alexandra has two romances in O Pioneers!, and the one with Carl is secondary to the one she has with the land. It isn’t until after she has subdued the land—until she has been able to stop working the land and make the land work for her—that she is finally free to pursue a relationship with a man. And while she’s finally able to settle down and marry a man she both respects and loves, her relationship with the land has meant sacrificing every other relationship she has—her relationships with Lou and Oscar are strained at best, and she bears significant responsibility for the loss of Emil. She wanted Emil to have a different life; yet how different his life would have been if he’d been raised to be her right-hand-man on the farm. If she’d passed on her love of the land, her desire to see it become the farmland she knew it could be, perhaps Emil’s fate would have been much different. But because she didn’t see this relationship with the land as “good enough” for Emil, because she pushed him away from it, forced him to be indifferent toward it, she perhaps sealed his fate as someone who was destined to never know its joys or bounty.
The relationships that drive O Pioneers! are universal—love of family, romantic love, love of the land. But it’s the unique way in which Cather portrays these, the unique personalities and the way she makes the setting a character in and of itself, that makes this book one that still resonates more than one hundred years after its publication.
Ahern, Amy. “Willa Cather: Longer Biographical Sketch.” The Willa Cather Archive. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Web. 02 April 2016.
Cather, Willa S. O Pioneers!. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913.
Slote, Bernice. “Willa Cather and Her First Book.” April Twilights. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1968. page xliv.
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