O Pioneers!, Willa Cather (1913)

The land belongs to the future….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.

 

pioneersO Pioneers! tells the story of the Scandinavian, Bohemian and French immigrants who settled in the Nebraska prairies during the turn of the 20th century to farm, raise families and have the success impossible in the old country. But the land is harsh and uncooperative, the crops often fail and livestock die. Some families sell out and move to the city and some stay and try to tame the land. The Bergsons, who left Sweden 10 years prior, are one such family. As father Bergson is dying he gathers his children around him pleading with them to stay with the land; to follow the lead of their sister, Alexandra, to whom he leaves the farm and to make a go of it no matter what it takes.

But the difficulties aren’t only with the land. Alexandra is constantly fighting her brothers, Oscar and Lou, who see their neighbors leaving their farms and moving to the cities to work in factories.bohemians2.jpeg Alexandra will not give up on her promise to her father even when it looks grim. Drought and an unforgiving climate are not the only reason neighboring farms are failing; the tried and true methods of farming that worked in the old country are not relevant here. When Alexandra hears the communities “down river” are thriving she takes a trip to find out why. Upon her return she tells her brothers they have to sell their cattle and corn and buy up more land and they have to be open to innovation.

The rigidity in refusing to learn new farming methods as well as choosing different crops has raised another issue: gossip⁠—no one wants to make any innovation that their neighbor isn’t making. This fear of what others think affects many of the farmers including Oscar and Lou and they bring this up with regularity. But after her trip they see it is pointless to fight her; she has worked out all the financials and the new methods of tending the crops they will have to employ. Begrudgingly, Oscar and Lou accept Alexandra’s terms and after several years the farm is a great success

nebraskaplainsParallel to the growth and success of the land the people also flourish. The courtings, marriages and children populate the land along with the crops. Alexandra herself is like the generative force of nature, a divine spirit who resolves conflicts not only about the land, but with her neighbors. She sacrifices personal love and family for the greater love of honor to her father and for the greater good of the community.

Under Alexandra’s counsel the land and the people flourish. She doesn’t try to fight the land or to force certain crops, she tries to understand its needs. To see the land as it is and to not be afraid to go against the traditions of the past makes her land bloom. And this is how she is with her neighbors, a Mother Earth figure resolving arguments with compassion and understanding. Under her benevolent, but firm hand, the land and the people prosper.

Her face was so radiant…For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. The Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

One of the engaging aspects of this novel is in the crafting of the characters⁠—the Bergson family and their friends and neighbors. They have an archetypal feel that gives this novel depth and a larger purpose.

  • Ivar the Fool, the solitary old man of odd habits and perhaps a little “touched in the head,” but whose knowledge of animal welfare is unsurpassed; his connection and ability to heal them is at once a boon to his neighbors as well as the source of their suspicion of him
  • Emil (Alexandra’s youngest brother) and Marie-the requisite Doomed Lovers
  • Oscar and Lou Bergson-the Evil Brothers, the naysayers, who want to undermine Alexandra’s success
  • Carl Linstrum-the childhood best friend who becomes the Delayed Love Interest
  • Alexandra-Demeter, the Great Goddess of the Harvest who brings fertility to the Earth
  • The Land-the Life Force, a sentient being that begs to be understood

The novel ends on a triumphal note, but not before a great tragedy occurs. Love and death are central themes in O Pioneers!

My Thoughts

The narrative describes many of the great themes in the settling of the US; immigration, taming the land, individual freedom and independence as well as the importance of community, love of tradition as well as innovation. Through the Bergsons and their neighbors the failures and successes of the immigrant families who made America, especially in this area of the country, are illustrated with a detailed and perceptive hand.

I found this book to be quite profound. The writing is spare, with a matter-of-fact style that is deep and poetic, but without sentimentality. For example, when Ivar discovers the bodies of Emil and Marie, above them

…two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa-field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadow; 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. 

And the ending thus

Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

I remember when I reviewed Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier and some of the commenters said they wished they hadn’t read the book, so they could read it again for the first time. I feel this way about O Pioneers! This is a multi-layered book with insights that continue long after reading. And for me a prose that sings to the love of Nature and the land that sustains us. This is reading as pleasurable as it can be.

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Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1913
Pages: 309

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics