Thursday, June 30, 2016

O Pioneers!

O Pioneers!
© 1913 Willa Cather
230 pages

The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

Hannover, Nebraska, is a frontier town on the brink of failing, a temporary camp upon a wild landscape that refuses to give up its bounty. A growing stream of families are selling their land at a loss and retreating back to civilization, there to eke out meager if predictable incomes as employees of someone else.  Alexandra Bergson has been urged to follow them: here she is, managing a homestead and a number of younger siblings on her own, virtually an orphan. For ten years her father labored here, and all he achieved was to pay off debt. But Alexandra loves the land she buried her father in,  senses that the winds will turn, and above all -- believes in her father's dream.  And so, she committs herself to it -- managing her resentful brothers, eagerly seeking out new information and carefully experimenting,  Virtually everyone leaves her. In the decades to come she is the core of her family, the creator of its success, whose growing staff of immigrants dote on her.  Her aim in life  is to see to it that at least one of her younger siblings transcend the farm, to gain entry into the professional class by the fruits of her labor.   Young Emil does, and for a time all seems right with the world -- but domestic bliss is denied to virtually everyone here. The ending, in which Alexandra seems to realize her vocation at the farm is fulfilled and is reunited with a cherished childhood friend, leaves one feeling slightly...unfulfilled.  It has an air of resignation, almost, but at least the writing and characters make the story worthwhile.

Frontispiece:  Grant Wood's Fall Planting. Wood is best known for his American Gothic, though my favorite is Spring in Town.

Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry


  1. Well done! What interests me in Willa Cather's writing are the ways in which character is determined by environment. Although I would not go so far as to pigeon-hole Cather as a writer in the Naturalism school, I think casual readers of Cather miss the point when they focus so much on character without giving equal attention to the environments. What do you think?

  2. I have only just met Ms. Cather's, having read two of her books in the last two weeks, but in both of them the role of the natural landscape is immense. Neither the Nebraska plains nor the New Mexican desert are mere backdrop for her. They are rich, powerful, constantly working on the characters. Certainly her writing is at its most dramatic when she describes the world in which her people live.


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