Wednesday, February 4, 2015

O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! 
by Willa Cather

Kindle Edition
192 pages
My first Back to the Classics Challenge book,
and this fulfills #6, 
a Classic Novella.

I am not sure how this book has escaped my reading it before now. I adore historical fiction. I read a lot about the prairie days of westward expansion and of the hard working pioneer families that are a part of my ancestry. However, somehow this book was missed. Throughout high school, college and personal reading. I am glad that I discovered it. 
Honestly, I don't recall hearing Cather's name before which is a shock as well. I must say that I will be looking into more of her writings in the future. 

Originally published in 1913, "The book takes place on the plains of Nebraska in the late 19th Century as the Prairie is settled by Swedish, Bohemian, and French immigrants trying to eke out a living from what appears to be a harsh, inhospitable land. The heroine of the book is Alexandra Bergson who inherits her father's farm as a young woman, raises his three sons and stays with the farm through the harsh times to become a successful landowner and farmer. The book speaks of being wedded to the land and to place. In this sense it is an instance of the American dream of a home. It also speaks of a strong woman, not a cliched, late 20th Century terms but with a sense of ambiguity, difficulty and loss. This is a story as well of thwarted love, of the difficult nature of sexuality, and of human passion. There is also the beginning of what in Cather's works will become and increased sense of religion, Catholicism in particular, as a haven and a solace for the sorrow she finds at the heart of human endeavor. Above all it is a picture of stark life in the Midwest. There is almost as much blood-letting in this short book as in an Elizabethan tragedy. Cather's picture of American life on the plains, even in her earliest books, is not an easy or simple one, however, "O Pioneers" is a thoughtful, well written story of immigrant life on the plains and of the sorrow pain, and strength of the American experience." (Amazon description)

From the very beginning, I was struck by Cather's descriptions. Listen to this, the SECOND sentence. "A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky." Can't you just see it?! Do you feel the icy cold of the snow?
Her descriptions continue throughout, a wonderful addition to the story. I have a lot of admiration for Alexandra. She is a strong girl, an adoring older sister to Emil, and a good daughter. I was quite surprised by some events in this book, but it's hard to review this book and not give away spoilers, so I think I will end with just a few of the quotes that I loved, and the recommendation to read it if you are at all interested in the history of our country, or of the west. 

"A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves."

"People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in the world. It is always easier to lose than to find. What I have is yours, if you care enough about me to take it."

"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."