Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa CatherO PIONEERS!
by Willa Cather

Fiction: Classics
Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003
(first published 1913)
Paperback, 161 pages
Source: Purchased

The first book in Willa Cather’s Prairie trilogy, O Pioneers! is a story of survival on the Nebraska prairies. At a time when the American West was wild and uncultivated, many immigrants were drawn to the frontier by the extremely low price of land. However, many of these families were from cities and had little or no experience or knowledge of farming; although they were eager to pursue a new life on the prairie, they were ill-suited to the demands of eking out a living from the land.

The Bergsons are one such family. John Bergson, a Swedish shipbuilder, moves his family to Nebraska to start a new life. They live a hard-scrabble life on the virgin prairie, surviving and gradually paying off their debt for years. However, even harder times soon come to the prairie; the land is harsh, and a dry year kills off much of the farm’s yields. Many of the Bergson’s neighbors are giving up and selling their land to move back to the cities. The Bergsons are close to following suite until the oldest child, Alexandra, points out that the richest men in town aren’t selling: they’re buying.

Alexandra convinces her family to follow the lead of the rich investors rather than the scared farmers, arguing that the the land will make them rich someday. Despite the protests of two of her younger brothers, scheming Lou and sluggish Oscar, the family continues to farm their land. When Alexandra’s father dies soon after they decide to stay in Nebraska, she becomes the head of the household and leads the family in expanding their property.

Sixteen years later, the land has miraculously become fertile, and Alexandra is a wealthy woman. The land has been divided between the siblings, and Lou and Oscar have their own farms, which are far less successful than Alexandra’s. The youngest brother, Emil, is attending college due to Alexandra’s efforts to give him an easier life than she had — a life in which every opportunity is open to him.

I really loved this book. I mean, how can you not love a book that starts with this sentence?

“One January, day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.”

Cather’s writing is gorgeous, and I especially loved the way she writes about the prairie. Her lush descriptions of the land’s different moods, promises, and hardships make it seem like one of the characters in this book. Cather also uses her descriptions of the ancient, everlasting land to emphasize the impermanence of humans and their actions.

“But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”

I also loved the character of Alexandra. She is such a strong female character surrounded by “little men,” and I had to admire her tenacity and insight; in a time when her neighbors were selling their land out of fear, she kept her head and took out loans to expand her own property. Her boldness paid off, and she succeeded in building a fruitful farm. And yet, despite her independence, she dreams at night of a man carrying her lightly over the fields. I think it’s natural for her to wish for someone to share her burden, but I am glad she doesn’t marry simply to fulfill that wish. Although she yearns for a man in quiet moments, her true love is the land.

“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.”

In addition to strong women, Cather presents the idea that a person must make his or her own fortune. Whereas Alexandra has the creativity and tenacity to improve her lot in life (and give Emil opportunities she never had), her negative, narrow-minded brothers, Lou and Oscar, put their happiness upon other people, and are thus doomed to unhappiness. Cather seems to think that the key to happiness lies more in your outlook on life than your living conditions; although it can be difficult, “when you found out how to take it, life wasn’t half bad.”

I never expected to be completely riveted by a book called O Pioneers!, but I could not put this book down! The writing is beautiful, and I loved the descriptions of the land, the strong female protagonist, the portrayal of different ethnic groups on the frontier, the ideas about creating one’s own fortune, and the treatment of some of the characters, such as Emil and Alexandra’s best friend, Carl.

I am so glad I read this book, and I look forward to reading more of Cather’s works!

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17 thoughts on “Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while so this is encouraging. I recently read her My Antonia for a book challenge which I loved! I didn’t realized though that My Antonia was the last book in her prairie trilogy so it seems that I’ve started backwards! I’m hoping to get myself forward facing soon and start the trilogy at the beginning.

    • As far as I can tell, it’s just a trilogy in that they are three books about life on the prairie; they’re not about the same characters. O Pioneers! was the first one published, followed by The Song of the Lark and then My Antonia, but I don’t think they need to be read in that order. I just thought it would be nice to follow the progression!

  2. I read My Antonia for class in high school and have always meant to read more Willa Cather. Somehow I’ve never gotten around to it though. O Pioneers! definitely sounds like something I would enjoy.

    • I can’t wait to read My Antonia!

      O Pioneers! is really good, and it’s a pretty quick read; at 160 pages, it took me about six hours to read, and I’m a fairly slow reader.

    • I’m looking forward to reading My Antonia. After finishing this book, I wanted to rush out and by the other two prairie books immediately, and it’s been a huge act of willpower to resist. But I’m already over budget for book-buying this month!

  3. You know, I’ve seen this on the B&N classics shelf for years, but it always looked so boooooring. (In my opinion) many classics are too slow and descriptive for modern ears, and if I am going to choose a classic, I’d prefer one with some action or romance, not a story about pioneers and their farm. But you present a really good case for O Pioneers! I’ve never even picked it up before, just judged it on the name, but seeing you give it 5 stars on Goodreads has encouraged me to pick it up the next time I see it. So, thanks! 🙂

    • I’m going to tell you a secret: There is actually a forbidden romance leading to a crime of passion in this book! I don’t want to say any more than that, except that these events involve someone close to Antonia and have a strong affect on her perception of fault and the choices people make.

      Haha, if anything, I’d have thought saying “the way she writes about the LAND is really pretty” might throw someone off who prefers faster-paced books! Honestly, I didn’t have huge expectations for a book called O Pioneers!, but I was surprised by how much it swept me away.

  4. I love this book and reading your post makes me want to read it again! I’ve read My Ántonia, too, but still need to read The Song of the Lark. 🙂

  5. This is the first (and only) Willa Cather I’ve read but I loved it and, as you point out, all my love rests in Alexandra, I even love her name!

    “I also loved the character of Alexandra. She is such a strong female character surrounded by “little men,” and I had to admire her tenacity and insight;”

    I agree. She is the smartest person among her neighbors and she can clearly run a farm, but if I remember well, there is a point when despite her previous success no one believes she is capable of doing what she’s been doing for decades. I could only think: “What?!!” But it depicts the war between men and women at that time.

    Can’t wait for read more by Cather.

    • That sounds right; are you thinking about how everyone wants to send Ivar to an asylum despite Alexandra’s insistence that he’s harmless? I love that despite everyone who doubts her, Alexandra does what she wants to do. She doesn’t let anyone push her around, and she succeeds because of it!

  6. What a well-written review, nicely done! I found a copy of this at one of the local library bag sales, which means I paid about 12 cents for my copy. I think I will read it this weekend, thanks!

  7. Pingback: The Classics Club: Updates, Memes & Journaling | Maple & a Quill

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