Thursday, January 27, 2022

‘O Pioneers!’ by Willa Cather


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

I have read quite a few new releases and wanted to revisit my “classic reading list.” And boy, am I glad that I did! There is something about “O Pioneers!” by Willa Cather that just grabs your imagination. Maybe it’s Cather’s descriptions of Nebraska and its wide, open plains. Or maybe it’s the resiliency and vulnerability of Alexandra Bergson, our heroine. Whatever the reason, “O Pioneers!” remains as vibrant and striking today as when it was written in 1913.

Patriarch John Bergson is dying. A Swedish immigrant, John decides to entrust the family farmland in Hanover, Nebraska to his daughter Alexandra. It is obvious she is the most logical choice. Her brothers may have the physical strength for farming but it is Alexandra who has the mental strength. Elder brothers Oscar and Lou are discriminatory against Alexandra; who believes a woman can run a farm? Only her younger brother Emil understands her but he leaves the farm when he starts falling in love with the married Marie Shabata.

The elder Bergson brothers should have kept their peace, as Alexandra’s smarts and stamina produce a very profitable farm. In fact, her farm is the most prosperous on the Divide. Lou and Oscar get married and start their own farm. Through it all, Alexandra remains single with her focus on her livelihood. That is until Carl Linstrum comes back to Hanover. Carl and Alexandra were childhood friends but his family had to sell their farm when drought and the depression strike Nebraska. He returns, rekindling his relationship with Alexandra. But Oscar and Lou are threatened by Carl. They believe his romantic designs on Alexandra threaten their family’s financial security, so they run him out of town. Alexandra resigns herself to a life of spinsterhood when a family tragedy occurs that brings Carl back into town. At last, Alexandra finds comfort and companionship with Carl.

Cather’s tone throughout the novel is simple and stark, just like the Bergson and their land. And while there are relationships and family drama, I found the true beauty of the book in the descriptions of Nebraska with its rolling plains and endless sky. It is hard to imagine the backbreaking work that went into farming such a vast and seemingly desolate place but Cather vividly captures not only the effort but the land itself. She has a naturalist’s eye on the world around her. But there is also a melancholy to her observations. This isn’t a book that shies away from the hard life Alexandra and her family experience. Folded in between the people and the land Cather surprises us with some lovely and succinct philosophical observations of hope and love.

By the end of the book, you feel Alexandra and Nebraska are one and the same, tied together forever. To me, the last paragraph says it all:

“They went into the house together, leaving the Divide behind them, under the evening stars. 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!”

Thank you for reading!

Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.

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