You gotta love a book with an exclamation point! You have to! Really! One of my good friends lent me this book when she discovered that I’ve never read any Willa Cather, despite being a placist, which appears to truly be a word that my friend invented, but a good one all the same. Various internet definitions suggest that being placist is like being racist, but that’s just lame. The new definition of placist is possessing a deep conviction in the importance of place. And that covers the whole range…place in fiction, place in music, place in cooking, place in social interaction, place in politics, etc., etc. If you believe place is important you are a placist.
Willa Cather is a placist and her place is the Midwest, the real midwest. Some folks call Indiana the midwest, but really only when the United States ended at Missouri was Indiana midwestern. I think of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa as midwest junior, and Nebraska, the Dakota’s, that whole stretch as the real Midwest, capital ‘M’.
O Pioneers! is the story of Alexandra Bergson, a first generation Swedish immigrant who turns the Divide, somewhere in Nebraska, from a land that seems determined to drive all humans away to a fertile, prosperous farmland. This is paired down prose and a relatively simple story about the relentless American move forward, and what that means for Alexandra, her friend and confidante Carl Linstrum and her younger brother, Emil. Here are three things I found interesting in this book:
1. I didn’t think about this while I was reading, but as the introduction to my Signet Classic points out, Alexandra was a new kind of heroine for the time. The story isn’t about her marrying the wrong man, or the trials and tribulations of her life that are all building to a marriage. Alexandra is a heroine who does many important things that have nothing to do with marriage. Her vision makes her family wealthy and secure and she takes her neighbors along with her.
I remember in high school English classes talking about the great American novel, and it was always an interesting frame to use to discuss a work of fiction. If this is the great American novel, what does it say about America? In the case of O Pioneers!, the progressive figure carrying us boldly into the future is really Alexandra, and in case you hadn’t picked up on this by now, she’s a woman. I think she would make a very interesting comparison to Gatsby and the picture of America these two novels give us (weird and ironic aside, Googling Great Gatsby just produced a headline about Baz Luhrman’s film of the novel, which will be filmed in….Sydney? Okay…). Gatsby also made it big, but all in pursuit of this impractical and unreachable dream of Daisy. Alexandra is sturdy, steady and grounded compared to Gatsby, and that’s an interesting gender contrast. Alexandra doesn’t have it easy, but unlike Gatsby, she survives.
2. There are very interesting contrasts in the novel between Alexandra’s life and that of Carl Linstrum. Carl’s family gives up and moves back to Chicago fairly early in the novel, while Alexandra stays. Carl becomes city, while Alexandra remains of the prairie. They have beautiful conversations about how that plays out. Here’s Carl:
“Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him.”
I think this quote, besides being just beautiful, raises a lot of interesting questions about what, exactly, freedom is.
The irony of the novel is that Alexandra kind of wants her younger brother Emil to become more like that city person. In the same conversation with Carl, she says:
“We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t’ move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them (her other two brothers).”
She wants to give Emil the freedom to leave, and this gets at that very old tension between the beauty of belonging to a place, and the incredible desire to escape and go where things are happening, that wider world beyond her cornfields.
3. I’m interested to read more of Cather’s fiction, where I believe this might change, but O Pioneers! is very much a celebration of the conquering of the wild prairie, a man (or in this case, woman) against nature kind of narrative. As the introduction says, this is before the Dust Bowl, when that prairie literally blows away. But even in O Pioneers! there are moments when the characters miss the land as it was before Alexandra conquered it. Carl says:
“I even think I liked the old country better. This is all very splendid in its way, but there was something about this country when it was a wild old beast that has haunted me all these years. Now, when I come back to all this milk and honey, I feel like the old German song, ‘Wo bist du, wo bist du, mein geliebtest Land?’–Do you ever feel like that, I wonder?”
The German is, “Where are you, where are you, my beloved country?” and summarizes how I used to feel when I went home to my small, rural town being slowly swallowed by subdivisions. As a narrative about Manifest Destiny and westward progress, it’s interesting to have that nostalgia in there, as well.
Overall, this book was truly beautiful as well as thought provoking.
Coming soon, As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto, two women who you will surely fall in love with.