Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

51T04Q139GLO Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 2

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

Notable Quotes:

“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). 

 O Pioneers! is Book 1 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge & Book 7 for my Classics Club Challenge.

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21 thoughts on “Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

    • I’m very excited to read the next two in the Prairie Trilogy. Cather was originally from Virginia and her family moved to Nebraska when she was about 10 years old, I think. She was a bit of a tomboy and, from what I understand, the transition was not a happy one for her.

  1. I love Willa Cather! I can never decide if My Antonia is my favorite, or if Death Comes for the Archbishop takes top spot. I would love to do an author-works project for her.

    • Willa Cather will probably be up next for me, after I finish my Steinbeck complete-works project. I really like her, too. My favorite (so far) is A Lost Lady, but I still have a lot of her books left to read, including the two you mention. She also received the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, so I’m definitely eager to read that.

      • It’s interesting that a lot of people omit that one from the “prairie books.” I’m not quite sure why that is . . . when you read it, see what you think. I’m from the prairie, and in my mind it is DEFINITELY of the prairie too.

      • Hmm. The synopsis of One of Ours makes it sound quite a bit different from the other three… I can’t say for sure unil having read them all, of course, but if the blurbs hold up, I think I can understand why One of Ours would be considered separate.

  2. I read Cather years ago and then stayed away from her because I felt like, as a Nebraskan, she was being forced on me. The I read this one last year and realized how stupid I’d been.

  3. Yay! This is an amazing review, and I am so glad that you liked it. 🙂 I rather enjoyed this one when I read it a couple of years ago, and I can’t wait to reread it.

    I’m also looking forward to her later work-I’ve only read the 2 prairie books, so the difference will make for interesting comparisons.

  4. I read one of her books years ago (no this one) and I liked it very much, so I decided to keep on reading novels by her… but I didn’t. I wanted to read O pioneers and the whole trilogy, and I hope I can do it soon, I know I’ll enjoy!

  5. I have always wanted to read something from Willa Cather, but haven’t gotten around to doing it. Making it one of my literary goals this year. 🙂

  6. This was my very first Cather and one of my favorite books of 2010. For some reason I expected a dry and boring book and found a rich novel instead. She’s definitely an author I’ll be reading for years.

  7. Lovely review, Adam. I’m very intrigued by this novel (and this author in general), and that intrigue has only been heightened by your description of it. I’ll definitely try to find a copy of this book and read it this year.

  8. This is the first and only Cather novel I read, but I was impressed by her strong main female character. Alexandra has remained in my mind as one of those characters I would always keep in mind when reading about American women. She is such a strong and practical character and to think what women in literature would become in the 1950’s (except for the subversive ones). What a change.

  9. I’ve only read My Antonia (in high school) and Death Comes for the Archbishop, but I remember the gorgeous prose that Cather is a master of. I really enjoyed your review, insights, and quotes provided. It’s so easy to forgot how bleak and hard the prairie was even 100 years ago. This has been on my wish list for years–maybe it goes into next year’s TBR Pile!

  10. Pingback: The Classics Club: Updates, Memes & Journaling | Maple & a Quill

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