O Pioneers! is a wholesome version of the American Dream: set in Nebraska, and showing that hard work and order can produce food from the ground and money in your pocket. The distinctive feature of O Pioneers! is that the creator of this wealth is a woman, Alexandra Bergson. She is such a contrast to Lily Bart in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in the previous decade!
This is my second review in the Decades Project. More details below.
What a difference!
It wasn’t a deliberate choice to consider the contrasts between Lily Bart and The House of Mirth and Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! but they are telling. The earlier novel was set in New York and Europe, an eastward-looking novel. O Pioneers! takes place in Nebraska, part of the westward settlement of the North American interior. Willa Cather’s family had travelled from Virginia to Nebraska to build their lives there, beginning as farmers.
In O Pioneers! the Bergsons do not have money. They have come from Sweden to Nebraska and the land they cultivate has never been worked before. Alexandra is a capable young woman, and her father recognises her ability to manage the farm before his early death. She continues his work, caring for her three brothers, and developing the farm. After an initial struggle she does very well, through a combinations of research, investment and experimentation. She is able to provide the two oldest boys with their own farms, a university education to the youngest boy and a home and employment to an assortment of other people. She is well regarded in their community.
Unlike Lily, Alexandra hardly considers marriage, and certainly does not see it as a necessity or as her destiny.
She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times. (112)
One of the most poignant scenes involves the two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, who warn Alexandra against marrying Carl, a childhood friend who has returned to stay with her. By this time Alexandra has built up a large and thriving ranch, employing several people. Oscar says, ‘people have begun to talk’. Lou tells her,
‘You ought to think a little about your family. You’re making us all ridiculous.’
‘How am I?’
‘People are beginning to say you want to marry the fellow.’ …
Oscar rose. ‘Yes’, he broke in, ‘everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!’ (91-2)
Alexandra has nothing more to do with these brothers after this. It’s refreshing to read a novel from 100 years ago suggesting that a women’s marriage is not the business of the male members of her family. She does eventually marry Carl, on her own terms.
Other features of O Pioneers!
The novel includes a double murder of a pair of lovers. A strange aspect of the plot is that Alexandra visits the murderer in prison, and vows to use her influence to get him pardoned. The introduction to my edition suggests that Alexandra has a ‘rage for order’ and the lovers had disrupted the order of the community. The text suggests an additional reason for her response: she likes to do things, make things better. She loved both the victims, but she cannot do anything for them, but she pities the wronged husband and believes she can do something for him.
The characters in the novel are sharply drawn. Alexandra herself comes across as a vivid and energetic pioneer. She is in sharp contrast to Marie, the Bohemian (that is she came from Bohemia – provenance is important to pioneers) who is attractive, lively and always cheerful. Alexandra’s brothers are cautious, resentful, not models of pioneer spirit.
One character, Ivar, suffers fits of some kind, and keeps himself away from the community, living in an adapted cave, and reading the Bible. He has a particular ability with horses. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra when he gets too old to look after himself, an indication of her generous and tolerant spirit.
I have indicated that this novel draws on Willa Cather’s own experience. She described the writing of this, her second novel, in 1931, using a rural analogy.
I began to write a book entirely for myself, a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. … Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. (170: from My First Novels)
Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She had an active life as a journalist, writing novels, including My Antonia, editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, for example.
O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. Edition used in this review is by Oxford World Classics. 179 pp
The Decade Project
My library encourages reading with a Reading Passport. It is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I will read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1910s in February and so on and to review them here.
Previous posts in the Project
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.
The next decade: 1920s
I plan to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie for March’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.
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