Thursday, January 22, 2015

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

The power of the prairie
O Pioneers! was originally published in 1913. It is the first novel in Willa Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy,” which also includes The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia. The three novels share no common characters or specific setting, but all deal with the lives of farmers on the American Great Plains.

O Pioneers! is set near the town of Hanover in a region of Nebraska known as the Divide. The story begins in the 1880s (“thirty years ago”). The Bergsons are a family of Swedish immigrants who have come to the region to farm this land, but like many of their neighbors they have found the soil an inhospitable host. When the father dies, he designates his daughter Alexandra to run the farm after his passing, as he judges her more capable for the task than her brothers. Given the family’s lack of agricultural success, Alexandra is faced with a tough choice: stay and work this hard land in hopes that the family’s efforts will pay off, or sell out and move on to greener pastures.

Upon reading the opening section of the book, I was worried that it might be a young adult novel along the lines of Little Women. As the story begins, all of the main characters are children, but the narrative soon jumps ahead 16 years and disproves any fears of juvenility. Through beautifully naturalistic prose, Cather relates the farming life of these settlers and their relationship with the land. It’s not all soil tilling and crop yields, however. Rest assured that the book’s primary focus is human relationships. Cather offers up an ensemble cast of characters, and the reader soon becomes deeply involved in their hopes and heartbreaks. For much of the book’s length, there are forebodings of doom on the horizon, but for the most part it is a novel of everyday lives and the choices people make. Some may describe the plot of the story or the lives of the characters as “simple,” but that would be an erroneous assessment. This is a powerful book that proceeds with quiet dignity. Cather uses prairie life as a microcosm by which to elucidate insights into universal human nature. At a time when American literature was largely confined to the spheres of New York, Boston, and San Francisco, Cather proved that gripping drama and powerful emotion could be drawn from the soil of America’s heartland.

Stylistically, the book represents a period when naturalism was just about to turn the corner into modernism. On the surface Cather’s prose is straightforward and descriptive fare, similar to that of Hamlin Garland—another regionalist master—but bubbling up between the lines is a deeper understanding of psychological and philosophical themes. Here you won’t find the verbal gymnastics of William Faulkner, but you will find something akin to the dramatic power of his rural sagas. Cather is such a master of the English language that there are very few scenes from which one can’t pluck some quotable nugget about life, love, or man’s relationship to nature.

I’m a sucker for a good peasant epic, from Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth to Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, and Cather’s O Pioneers! ranks among the top exemplars of the genre. Any discussion of The Great American Novel should at least include an honorable mention for this great entry. I haven’t read Cather’s work in years, but after rereading O Pioneers! I’m eager to take a second look at the rest of the Prairie Trilogy.

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