What can I say about Willa Cather? Not enough, certainly. She is known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, chronicler of American Pioneer life, and for good reason. O Pioneers! is the first in a trilogy known as the “Prairie Trilogy”; it is followed by Song of the Lark and My Antonia. I have been, until now, more familiar with Cather’s later works, such as A Lost Lady, and there is a striking difference between her earlier works of Realism and the later move to Modernism. In A Lost Lady, one can witness that shift in action, but O Pioneers! is all Realism (with a bit of sensational romance thrown in vis-a-vis the likes of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Thomas Hardy).
Alexandra Bergson is the eldest child and only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bergson, who have emigrated from Sweden to make a home and farm on the Nebraska prairie. Things do not go as planned. The land is difficult to farm, the climate is difficult to live in, and the people – a hodgepodge of French, Swedish, and other nationalities are not always on the best of terms. But when the farm becomes Alexandra’s, she soon proves her prowess at managing a household (or three) and cultivating the land, so much so that she becomes one of the most prosperous landowners in the region. This success does not come without sacrifice. She spends her young adulthood and middle years alone and lonely, sacrificing love and courtship to take care of her younger siblings and to honor the dying wishes of her father. Much of the story seems to be a lament – a commentary on the difficult way of life these early pioneers endured.
In addition to Alexandra, the minor characters (and all of them, except Alexandra, are minor), are equally well-drawn and independent. The youngest brother, Emil, is the secondary character and it is his story that the reader believes will be carried on, after Alexandra’s closes – he is to be the “new” that comes from a successful pioneering life. Emil has left the farm to get a college education, his brothers despise him for it because they can no longer understand him, and they fear and hate their sister for allowing Emil the opportunity and for forcing, as they see it, their family to change. In this rural community, being different is not encouraged. The most important character of all, though, is probably the land itself – and everything Cather wants to express through it and about it.
Alexandra and Emil, as well as Emil’s love interest (a married woman) and the loose-living French community are in stark contrast to the rest of the town. The main point of the story seems to live here, somewhere. It is extraordinary that this book, written exactly 100 years ago (1913), still speaks to us today. Anyone who has felt trapped by modern day’s excesses – too much noise, too many things, too many distractions, too many responsibilities, too much commentary… all of this was at issue, for Cather and the problem, having only amplified over time, is certainly valid and meaningful today.
Told in a beautiful, almost lyric prose that is accessible at all levels, but somehow transcendent, O Pioneers! is a story about chance and about planning; it is a story of leaders and followers, givers and takers; it is about family, community, hard work, education, and pursuing one’s dreams. Ultimately, it is a story of fate and impulse – a commentary on control and our inability, perhaps, to command even our own destinies, let alone those of others.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Pioneer America, Frontier Days, Rural/Farming Communities, Family, Destiny/Fate, American Realism, American Regionalism, Education
“The little town behind them had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie, and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom” (11).
“A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves” (37).
“It’s by understanding me . . . that you’ve helped me. I expect that is the only way one person ever really can help another” (39).
“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 over for thousands of years” (89).
“I’ve found it sometimes pays to mend other people’s fences” (105).
“It’s queer what things one remembers and what things one forgets” (178).
“Above Marie and Emil, two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die” (201).
“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” (229).