O Pioneers!, Willa Cather. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994 (Originally published in 1913).
Summary: The first of the Great Plains Trilogy, the story of Alexandra Bergson’s love of the Nebraska hills, the costly choices she made, and the ill-fated love of her brother Emil.
I’ve only recently discovered Willa Cather, and realized that I have missed reading one of America’s great writers. This work, the first volume in the Great Plains Trilogy centers around Alexandra Bergstrom, a strong, red-haired woman. As she helped her dying father, it became clear that she and not her two older brothers, truly understood how to make the farm succeed that he had labored so hard to establish in the hills of Nebraska. When he died, she took over its management. When her brothers wanted to sell the farm during the drought, she went to see the river land they wanted to move to, and returned to propose that they mortgage the farm to add to the lands, her faith being so strong. In one of the pivotal passages of the book, Cather writes of her:
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. Then 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 (Cather, p. 44).
Under her love, the expanded farm prospers, she buys out her brothers who acquire their own land. With old Ivar, who the brothers want to commit, and farmworkers and young girls to help, the fields, orchards, and stock flourish. But she is growing older, alone. Her one male friend from childhood, Carl Linstrum, his parents having sold the farm to Alexandra, has gone off to seek his fortune, and yet never finds it, secretly struggling to live up to Alexandra’s accomplishments, little realizing that this was not what she wanted.
Sadly, Alexandra also fails to recognize the yearnings drawing together her friend Marie, trapped in an unhappy marriage and her beloved youngest brother Emil, for whom she hoped so much. She sends Emil to help Marie in her troubles, little suspecting the attraction she is helping to fuel. One wonders if she fails to see the desires in others that she had suppressed in herself for so long.
One of the other things Cather captures is the ethnic diversity, each with their own settlements-the Norwegians, the French, the Bohemians, and the intersections between them at festivals, churches and daily life. Each has stereotypes of the others but also friendships, like that between Emil and Amedee, or Alexandra and Marie. Slowly, these different migrants are brought together but the challenges of Nebraska’s upland prairies.
I was also taken by the many descriptions of the land–the paths they walked, the pond where Emil shot the ducks with Marie by his side (a scene pregnant with foreshadowing), the rainstorm that clarified Alexandra’s grief and resolve, and the white mulberry tree. Amid all this, and dominating the whole is the strong character of Alexandra whose love of the land, shrewdness of character, generosity of friendship, and ultimately, a forgiveness that transcends grief makes her one of the great characters of American literature.