Friday, August 2, 2013

O Pioneers by Willa Cather

Willa Cather
  I confess: when I picked up O Pioneers! it was to  read lightly in between my other heavy reading;    but I did not realize that O Pioneers! was making    an unrelenting impression on me - and it was      upon me before I realized, which was too late    because I finished the book.  Now it is stuck on  me, and I wish I had been paying more attention,  that is, taking it more seriously while it was  before me.

O Pioneers! is the first book in a trilogy about the American West at the turn of the century, when men staked their claim in hopes of making it rich off the land.  But Willa Cather describes the land as a strong-willed, persistent character, in which people must submit or let it be, and only then may they prosper.
"But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes...; because [Carl] felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness." 
(Remember Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, a living, breathing place that impacted all of its inhabitants?  Sounds familiar.)

Only a few were able to "tame" the land, and the main character, Alexandra, is one of them.  She is wise and persistent, and she has love for the land.
The Prairie Laura Gilpin 1917
"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."
"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."
Alexandra took over her father's struggling property after his passing, and because she believed in the land and its possibilities, she was rewarded for her shrewdness and persistence.  She became one with the land.

But apart from the land, there are other relationships: some are restricted, such as that of Emil, Alexandra's youngest brother, and Marie, a married girl; some are hindered, like that of Alexandra and her longtime friend, Carl, who could not make it on the prairie.  One gets the impression that human relationships for pioneers are often strained, restless, and fleeting.
"People have to snatch at happiness when they can in this world.  It is always easier to lose than to find."
Overall, O Pioneers! is about people and their struggles to live and be happy, which has been the same story told over and over again since the beginning of time and civilization.

"Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

I think I am curious now to finish the trilogy; but this time I will read it more seriously.


  1. I have always wanted to read Willa Cather but have not made the time... your post is inspiring me to add it to my list.

    1. I would say that Cather is a beautiful and enjoyable writer and not too heavy w/ complex ideas.