Friday, August 28, 2015

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Alexandra Bergson, the protagonist of O Pioneers! is an intelligent and resilient young woman. Her father, who is dying as the book opens, recognizes these characteristics and informs her brothers that, while all the siblings will share the family's Nebraska farm upon his death, Alexandra will be in charge. Her brothers acquiesce although, when things go badly and many of their neighbors are leaving for jobs back in Chicago or St. Louis, they are unhappy with her plan to mortgage the farm to buy more land.

Flash forward sixteen years, and Alexandra has been proved right. Her brothers now have their own farms and all are doing well. Then her youngest brother Emil returns from college in Lincoln and Alexandra's childhood friend Carl passes through their town on his way to Alaska to look for gold. Romance abounds, but not entirely happily. Carl ends up staying longer than planned and Alexandra and Carl's relationship deepens, but her older brothers fear Carl is only interested in stealing their family's land. Emil meanwhile starts a flirtation with a married neighbor, Marie Shabata. Eventually, Emil leaves for a job in Mexico and Carl heads for Alaska, promising to come back when he is established enough not to look like a fortune-hunter. Alexandra spends a lonely winter alone on the farm.

The next spring, Emil comes back home and once again spends more time than is wise with Marie, whose husband Frank is a hothead. When the worst happens, Carl hastens back to comfort Alexandra.

When you summarize O Pioneers! like that, it sounds like a melodrama and, to some extent, it is. But Cather's amazing sense of place and her respect and empathy for the women who scratched out a living on the Great Plains at the turn of the 20th century elevate the book. As with My Antonia, I did not love this book but I think it is well worth reading.

Favorite passages:
Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country that have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.

She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.

Freedom so often means that one is needed anywhere.

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