O Pioneers! by Willa Cather is the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants who settle in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. First published in 1913, this is a short novel and is the first book of what is known as the Great Plains Trilogy. I found the story and the characters compelling. The prose is beautifully written. Cather’s description of the Nebraska region that the book takes place in, known as the Divide, is a major feature of this book as the landscape practically becomes a character in and of itself. In some ways, this work reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, and that book’s incorporation of Egdon Heath in its narrative.
The novel is segmented into sections, each section jumps several years forward. The entire story encompasses the late nineteenth century and moves into the early twentieth century. The tale begins as John Bergson, the father of the family, is dying. His parting admonishment to his family is to leave his daughter, Alexandra, in charge of the family farm. At this point, the clan consists of Alexandra, her mother and her three brothers. Lou and Oscar are older and are basically competent farmers but are flawed people with limited imagination. Emil is the youngest sibling who is intelligent and sensitive. Carl Linstrum is a neighboring boy who becomes Alexandra’s romantic interest. Marie is a lively young girl who grows up alongside the Bergsons.
The Bergson farm, as well as the Bergson’s neighbors’ farms, are failing as a result of years of bad weather. Neighbors are abandoning the area. Carl and his family move away to the city. Alexandra comes under pressure to sell the property and vacate, but persistently resists and holds out. In a turn of events, as the years go by, the region starts to thrive. Alexandra’s management turns out to be competent and energetic, and the entire Bergson family eventually prospers. Alexandra helps Emil to get a university education. For his part, Emil becomes interested in the unhappily married Marie. The two initiated an affair and serious trouble ensues. There are other interesting characters and plot threads.
Eventually, Carl returns to the area. He is penniless. An interesting but unfortunate role reversal starts to play out. Alexandra wants to marry Carl, but her family objects because he is broke. The independent Alexandra wants to go ahead anyway, but social pressure leads Carl to set off into the world to earn a fortune before he will marry a more prosperous woman. The social interactions involving gender and money are interesting. If the roles were reversed, a wealthier man would be able to marry a poorer woman, but it is the disparity of income combined with gender that keep the two apart. The fact that it is Carl who responds to the social pressure and declines marriage is interesting.
The characters, plot and themes are well crafted and interesting. However, where this novel really shines is in Cather’s wonderful prose. The author weaves this prose to fit and connect with various characters and themes.
For instance, Alexandra is tied to the land. When other pioneers are abandoning it and going back where they came from, Alexandra stubbornly hangs on. She does this in the face of even her two brothers’ opposition. In this passage, Cather pulls it all together,
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
I find the fact that Alexandra may be the only person to look at The Divide with such a fascinating love and yearning. Thus, The Divide bends its will to her, and history begins.
Likewise, Cather uses her skill with prose, people and nature to illuminate Marie’s character and predicament. This young woman has found herself trapped in a bad marriage. She once seemed to have loved Frank her husband. However, not only has Frank allowed pessimism and depression to bring him down, but he has taken his bad feedings out on Marie. This is painful and stifling to her. She looks for some way to escape, no matter how bad it is.
Marie stole slowly, flutteringly, along the path, like a white night-moth out of the fields. The years seemed to stretch before her like the land; spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring; always the same patient fields, the patient little trees, the patient lives; always the same yearning, the same pulling at the chain— until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman, who might cautiously be released. Marie walked on, her face lifted toward the remote, inaccessible evening star.
There is a lot to the above passage. It is interesting that Marie flutters like a moth. She is a person on a chain, tied to the mundane. Symbolically, she is bleeding and weak. She still looks for release and gazes upon evening stars that seem equally inaccessible. Once again, I think that Cather’s language is superb.
This is a very good, short book. The characters are interesting and somewhat complex. The story is compelling and drives worthy themes. I simply love Cather’s prose, which is excellent and ties everything together. As I was impressed with this book, I am likely to read the remainder of the Prairie Trilogy soon.