by Willa Cather
Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003
(first published 1913)
Paperback, 161 pages
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!