Book Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Literature
Page Count: 179
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 3 hours
Date Finished: 2/05/17
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My impressions: I enjoyed O Pioneers! quite a bit, which is interesting since I knew nothing about the book going in and had a limited familiarity with Willa Cather (the one work of hers I ever read was the short story “Paul’s Case” in high school literature class). I had no expectations, and while I vaguely remembered Cather as being one of those writers who tended towards plain language and realistic characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find how well both of those tendencies served this story about a family of Norwegian immigrants living in Nebraska at the turn of the century.
What surprised me first of all was how strong the character of Alexandra Bergson is – the narrator explains to us early on that she’s smart and determined, but not particularly imaginative or clever, and certainly more renowned for her mind than her appearance. Alexandra begins the story as a young woman, but it quite quickly moves into her adulthood to show her successes and provide time for character relationships around her to change. At the beginning of the story, Alexandra is the shrewd daughter of an immigrant who leaves behind his farm and meager estate to his four children and wife to be divided, but he is clear in his wish that Alexandra run things. As the years progress, she makes many tough decisions and keeps the family afloat until they are all wealthy and privileged people among their neighbors. Two of her brothers, however, are also resentful of her success and her ability to manage a farm staffed by hands so that she does not have to toil as they do.
Alexandra’s not a terribly complex character; she is sharp and blunt, saying what she means and reading people with an air of impatience. She is good to those who need her, and she surrounds herself with people who remember the old ways of their old country. And yet, as the story progresses, she grows lonelier and lonelier, finding her inner circle shrinking by natural causes or a terrible, shocking tragedy that occurs late in the novel. It is only because of her connection to Carl Linstrum, a man she’s known since childhood, that she is able to find any relief, and he is off prospecting for gold in Alaska.
The other main character in the story is her young brother Emil, whom Alexandra ensures is well-educated and given the opportunity to be whatever he wants to be. Emil is smart and capable, considering law school and regularly taking off on adventures. And yet Emil is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Bohemian Marie, a childhood friend who eventually enters into a loveless marriage with a jealous, small-minded farmer named Frank Shabata. As a result, Emil is often absent, departing from his home so he can try to get over his love, and yet always finding himself drawn back.
While this story is rather plainly told, there are some nice literary devices at work. The characters introduced in the first scenes are the most important characters in the story, and their interactions there shape how the rest of the story will play out. Cather’s descriptions of the people, the local immigrant cultures and the land itself are evocative and suggest a rich world filled with differences that are greatly intriguing to the reader despite being mundane and plain to the characters. Several of the characters are painted with a careful brush that displays both their humanity and their flaws, perhaps reflecting real individuals Cather knew in her childhood growing up in Nebraska.
But I also enjoyed how easy it was to read, how much connection I felt to the characters and how it felt at once both literary and approachable. It’s not a terribly long book, and the two books often associated with it (The Song of the Lark and My Antonia) are supposed to be similarly enjoyable. I’ll have to check them out!