Saturday, June 17, 2017

Oh, Pioneers! by Villa Cather


Once again, a second time, I was at the mercy of Willa Cather's writing, and closed this book with a feeling of accomplishment: as a reader as well as a human being.

In my world, more than a century after this novel was written, we still battle nature on a daily basis and we are aware that nature will return the moment we leave this little piece of earth behind forever. With seed, roots and rain, the stories of ages of human history will be covered in an instant, wiped away as though we never walked these paths a few million times through the slow passing of time.

Willa Cather gloriously painted the lives of pioneers in the unforgiving virginal wilderness at the turn of the 20th century, somewhere between 1883 and 1890, by describing the toughness and resilience of a group of immigrants in surviving the harshness of life on the prairies of Nebraska. The Bergsons children and their neighbors established a strong community through stubborn pride and dreams. It was their dreams, after all, that kept hope alive and celebrated the good times when it finally arrived. However, tragic love, diverse opinions, and hard manual labor drove those who preferred to stay behind, when the less experienced farmers were forced to leave. 

Alexandra Bergson instinctively took the road less traveled, the one on which love took a second place, and meticulous learning challenged old ideas, and the less brave combatants against nature preferred to leave. She compassionately took care of neighbors, family and friends, by making choices that left herself devoid of love and allowed loneliness to become her a life companion. The ones who benefited the most appreciated her the least, but her promise, as well as understanding of her father's insight into the land and its possibilities, made her stick to her dreams and decisions. 

The most important theme in the novel starts out in the beginning of the book, in the little town Hanover, Nebraska, in the bitterly cold winter, when Alexandra's little brother Emil's little kitten got chased up a telephone pole by stray dogs. He is waiting for her at the store while she is at the doctor's office. Carl Linstrum, a neighbor, arrives to rescue the little kitten on Alexandra's request for help. In the store where they try to warm up again, they meet the exotic Bohemian little girl Marie Tovesky who, with her sunny disposition, brown curly hair like a brunette doll's, her coaxing little red mouth, and round, yellow -brown eyes, with their golden glints like the Colorado mineral called tiger-eye, attracts men like flies even as a toddler. 

The plot centers around the strong bonds of friendships, which pushes love aside for most of the book, yet cannot manage to deny this strong attraction between humans in the best and worst of ways. Two love stories, with two different endings, snake through the tale. Two relationships are tested by different rules. Perseverance nestles itself in different situations leaving the people involved exhausted or dead. 

This book is so rich in emotional ironies, that I sat back afterwards and wondered why it was banned numerous times by the American Library Society. The kaleidoscope of human activities, driven by strong emotional intensity portrayed people in all their splendor. What part of this masterful text of human nature in all its intricate ways insulted some readers enough to have it banned?

“And now the old story has begun to write itself over there," said Carl softly. "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.”
Since love does not form the center of the plot, although many readers probably wanted it to do so, it does play out in the hearts of lonely, often desperate people. It becomes a secondary, underlying force in the book. 

The major focus, in my humble opinion, is the relationship between the different role players and their land.

Alexandra: "The land belongs to the future, Carl; that's the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk's plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother's children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it--for a little while."
Love becomes the third member of the marriage between humans and nature, resulting in an overcrowding of the relationship. Tears of joy and sorrow follows, as can be expected. 

This was a magnificent read. The prose lends itself to numerous memorial quotes. Willa Cather knew how to sell this part of the Divide to her readers with her poetic descriptions of the land and the people who conquered it. 


BOOK BLURBO Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather's first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather's heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra's devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.


Willa Sibert Cather was an American writer who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. Wikipedia
Born: 7 December 1873, Gore, Virginia, United States
Died: 24 April 1947, Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
Education: University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction
Movies: My Antonia, A Lost Lady, O Pioneers!, Masterpiece Theatre: The Song of the Lark

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