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.
This has been on my wishlist ever since I read and enjoyed Cather's My Antonia a few summers ago. If anything, that book has grown in stature over time rather than faded away. As you say, Cather's characters are truly compelling and her sense of place very vivid. I'd definitely like to read O Pioneers! at some point.
Hi Jacqui- I have decided to read all of The Great Plains Trilogy, although the books are not really connected. I am in the middle of Song of the Lark. I will be reading My Antonia soon. I have heard that it was the best of the three.
It does seem that Cather’s reputation has been generally on the upswing over the past few years.
Nice review, Brian. You are right that beautiful prose can really make a story worth reading. I read My Antonia and liked it very much. However, I am a little tired of stories that center around people who have become disenchanted with their marriage.
I know it can happen, but based on your review, it would seem that Cather has engaged in a popular attitude at the time. I call it "Edith Wharton School of Marriage Sucks."
Thomas Hardy, Cather, Wharton, so many seem to arrive at the conclusion that marriage impedes a person's personal pursuit of happiness as though it is inevitable.
I like George Orwell, Saul Bellow and Fitzgerald,and I suppose Hemingway, because while they depict the same attitude about marriage, they are honest about showing that life as a single person can provide no more happiness than marriage to selfish people.
Thanks for the review and have a great weekend. Have your wife read you a mystery! ;)
Thanks Sharon. The bad marriage theme does come up in much of literature. I love your “Edith Wharton School of Marriage Sucks.” idea. Your comment is really getting me to think about it. I am thinking of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady where a disastrous marriage realIy oppressed the heroine. I proceeding to read more Cather and I am in the middle of The Song of the Lark Now. I will see if this theme, or the opposite one appears.
Being single can of course lead to its own set of difficulties, I will also be on the lookout for that theme.
I do really have to delve into some mystery writers.
Have a great weekend.
I read this many years ago, in college. I enjoyed reading the beautiful writing at the time. Your wonderful summary and commentary brought the book back to life for me.
i (blush) haven't ever read Ms. Cather... but i've heard she's a great writer... this book sounds very readable; i'll try to find one by her... soon... i hope...
Hi Suko - I think a lot of people read this books or other Cather books in High School and College. I missed reading her up to this point.
Hi Mudpuddle - One cannot read every writer of reputation. There are just too many.
This book was readable. I think that you would like it.
Thanks for another great review. I have loved Cather's prose ever since I first read My Antonia when I was in eight grade. Her novels are a great example of the best in American literature.
Thanks James. Many people say that My Antonia is her best. I will likely be reading it soon.
Hi Brian! I’ve heard of this author, but never read any of her books. An American classic? You make it sound interesting!
Hi Brian, great commentary. I have read My Antonia and have yet to read Hardy but I want to. As you say both writers write so beautifully about nature and yet for some reason I have never been able to appreciate beautiful descriptions of the land in novels the way I'd like to. My reading tends to be very character driven. That something I want to change and I think the key to appreciating Cather and Hardy is to slow down when one reads them which is true with many great writers.
Hi Sue - She is so respected. I think for good reason.
Thanks Kathy. Slowing down is important. I also love to read for character. But with some writers, there is so much in the prose.
I read My Antonia way back in 2001. I was astonished by the writing and the depth of emotion she put into it. Your review of this one makes me doubt that that one was her best. It may just be her most well known because people read it in school. I read it as an adult. What you describe here is what I felt reading My Antonia. The astonishing description, the wisdom about life, and the amount of heart she put into her writing. I never went back to her because her works are earlier than the years of My Big Fat Reading Project: 1940 to the present. But I think I could use another dose of her writing.
Hi Judy - This is my first Cather. I seem to have missed her in school. Many people say that My Antonia is her best. I plan to read it soon.
Glad you enjoyed this one, that last passage you shared is beautiful.
Hi Naida. Cather’s prose is so good. It is often beautiful.
I love Cather. I've read My Antonia twice, and have reviewed it on my blog. I've also read other novels by her, but before blogging, and some short stories, since blogging. BUT I haven't read O Pioneers or Song of the lark, both of which I am keen to read. Like you, I think her prose is just beautiful. I like Hardy too, but haven't read The return of the native.
Your commenter Sharon made me laugh with the Edith Wharton line, because I love Wharton too. These books (and let's add Kate Chopin in here!) don't tire me, I must say, because they were written at times when marriage was tough, particularly for women given their lack of rights, leading to lack of choice. But even men, as you show, didn't always find it easy - money affected their choices. Family intervened so much in young people's choices. A single life was not always positive. Your commenter names all male writers - Hemingway, Fitgerald, Orwell, Bellow. Single men had more choices than women (who tended to be left with teaching and caring roles rather than more adventurous options. For them to break away from that they needed money and bravery. So, while I understand someone might tire of these stories, I do think it is interesting that most of the writers that Sharon names as writing these anti-marriage stories are women, while all the ones who discuss the single life are men!
HI WP – I am actually in the middle of Song of the Lark now. So far, I am finding it impressive.
The marriage theme is one that I have been thinking about. Women and to a lesser degree men, really had less choices and could find themselves trapped in very bad situations. I myself have decried the high divorce rate in today’s world, however, some of it is the inevitable result of people, being able to get out of bad and life ruining situations. I am now thinking of Anthony Trollope. He wrote before most of these writers. He was generally positive about marriage. However, he also highlighted a couple of times situations where women could become unfairly trapped in terrible marital situations. I tend to like to dig into data and numbers. Too bad we do not have surveys and polls from the past.
I love Cather too! Her prose is almost poetic. Such thoughtful word choice.
Hi Rachel - Poetic is a good word for it.
I read this book not all that long ago, and wow, I agree Cather's writing is so compelling and emotional. Alexandra's strong attachment to what seems to others such a bleak and barren land stays on our minds, not to mention other plot events which her style makes so vivid and real.
Hi Paula - This is my first Cather. I was so impressed with the prose.
I think that I could relate to the love of s barren land that Alexandra feels.
I finished O Pioneers just last year and liked how Alexandra was a strong character and saved the farm etc., though the ending confounded me a bit and seemed out of place. I recall liking My Antonia better but I need to reread it as it's been a long time. The writing is good and the author has an interesting perspective. Here were my thoughts from then: https://www.thecuecard.com/books/sundance-o-pioneers/
Hi Susan - Alexandra was s great character. The book’s ending did seem to be written a little unevenly. But it mostly worked for me. There was Alexandra siding with Frank. I may dig into what others have said about that.
So many people say that My Antonia was Cather’s best work I will be reading it soon.
I remember your commentary on this book.
I haven't read anything by Cather & I'm struggling to come up with many American authors I have read. Cather would be one I'd like to read. I will be interested to see what you think of The Song of the Lark. It's the one I thought I'd start with.
Hi Carol - Though I am just starting on her books, I think that Cather is a good place to start. Her books seem accessible, interesting and her themes seem very American.
I will be posting about Song of the Lark in a couple of weeks.
i loved this book dear Brain i wish i can find it right now
truly powerful and absolutely compelling
your review is ENCHANTING specially these passage form books cast spell !
i find the story one of my kind and so amusing .
first time knowing the writer and i want to read his all works if they are as beautifully written!
thank you sooo much for incredible post!
Thanks so much Baili. This was my first Cather. I think that you would like this.
This is such a wonderful book—so glad you read it and appreciated it. Cather is really amazing, and I agree with you about comparing her use of landscape and geography to Hardy’s. For both, our natural world shapes us.
The plight of Alexandra and Carl really is interesting in terms of gender—she is definitely one of my favorite characters.
I still need to reread My Antonia— read it in high school, but not since I have rediscovered Cather. Personally, I think Song of the Lark even better than O, Pioneers.
Hi Jane - Great point about the landscape forming us. Alexandra was a great character and the situations here were well crafted.
I have actually finished Song of the Lark and will be posting about it soon.
Wonderful review, Brian. I still haven’t read Cather, nor Thomas Hardy but I got this and Return of the Native. I’m really fond of books in which the landscape is a character. The prose sounds very beautiful.
Hi Caroline- I would Day that I have recently discovered the great landscape describers. This book was good but I thought that Return of the Narrative was special.
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