One of Ours, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1991 (Originally published 1922).
Summary: The story of Claude Wheeler, raised on a Nebraska farm, longs to live his ideals and find his purpose and does so in the First World War.
This is my last read in what I might call “The Year of Willa Cather.” I discovered her fine writing this year (how did I miss her so long). This work, a later one, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1923. Yet I found it the least satisfying of the works I’ve read.
The story is in two parts. In the first, Claude grows into adulthood on a Nebraska farm. Unlike his father and older brother with minds for business, Claude is something of a romantic, his mind filled with heroic ideals from conversations with his mother, a stint at a Christian school and his association with the Erlich family, culturally refined freethinkers. Called back to help on the farm, Claude faces the death of his romantic visions, even while still cherishing something of the pastoral beauty of the land. After an accident, he is nursed by the beautiful Enid, whose aspirations are more toward missionary service than love. Claude ardently seeks her hand in marriage, hoping that in love with such a perfect soul, he’ll find purpose. Despite warnings and the attentions of the more worldly Gladys Farmer, he marries Enid, only to find her uninterested in his affections. When her sister, a missionary in China turns ill, she leaves Claude to nurse her and take her place. His hopes dashed, he closes up the house he lovingly build to return home to his parents.
And so it might have ended were it not for the war. One of the great “might have beens” is what might have happened if he would have gotten together with Gladys. Instead, the war intervenes, he enlists and becomes an officer. Cather describes the horror of a plague ship as the flu of 1918 strikes his troop transport. Heroically he assists the doctor in caring for his bunkmate, and many other soldiers, some who do not make it but are buried at sea. He experiences something of the “band of brothers” solidarity with his company of solders, including a fellow officer, Gerhardt, with whom he is billeted.
It seems he finds the fulfillment of ideals and purpose in the Allied cause, during a series of battles. But I wonder whether this is really so, or rather, does he achieve a sense of worth in acting with courage, something he has always lacked? I find myself struggling with Cather’s portrayal of war–at times startlingly real in describing the realities of trench warfare, and at other times, creating an ideal, at least in the mind of Claude, that seems to idealize a terrible war. Sergeant Hicks seems more realistic, wanting to retreat to the “logical and beautiful inwards of automobiles for the rest of his life.”
What Cather does capture is the reality of wars that usurp the lives of so many young still trying to make sense out of life, leaving them cynical and traumatized, offering brief shining moments to others, and snuffing out the lives of too many too soon. She alludes to the number who return who take their own lives, which may be one of the early instances of writing about the inner wounds of war. And she leaves us wondering about all the “might-have-beens” of the beautiful-souled character of Claude.