O Pioneers!
by Willa Cather (1913)
The Library of America (1987; included in Cather: Early Novels and Stories)

I first read O Pioneers! in the fall of 2000. That was the first time I’d read anything by Willa Cather, and it was also, to my memory, the first time I really enjoyed a book without knowing what I was meant to think about it. Its plot surprised me, and the way the characters responded to various events surprised me. I was somewhat used to knowing what an author meant me to take away, but this book left me somewhat mystified. I was also surprised that that was not a barrier to my admiration for the book but, perhaps, something in the book’s favor.

I just reread the book, and I liked it even more this time around. I still don’t entirely know what to think! 

The book starts in 1883, and quickly zooms in on the Bergson family in the fictional Hanover, Nebraska. The eldest child is Alexandra. Industrious and ambitious, after her father dies she manages to use their meager assets to become a successful landowner at around the turn of the century. She is well respected, seeming as much as constant in the community as the land she helped cultivate.

Most of this happens in the first few chapters, so this is a book about the aftermath of these years of toil and prosperity. Alexandra has worked hard to ensure she and her younger brothers succeed, and yet of course that doesn’t inoculate her against loneliness and tragedy.

Because I knew where things were going this time through (despite nearly a quarter century passing since I last read it) I was able to slow down and enjoy the beautiful writing, particularly about the landscape. The book begins with a passage I must have reread a dozen times before I proceeded to finally turn the page:

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.

I just love how that passage sets up the tenuous human community from shortly after the Homestead Act encouraged folks to go west and find some land. The book proceeds through many seasons and several years, but it still always felt immediate and present. I never felt that I was reading a quick survey and romanticization of a time period. O Pioneers! is focused closely on its main characters. One of the reasons I love it so much is that they feel human, contradictory, familiar. I say little about any them because it’s better to get to know them and what happens to them yourself.

O Pioneers! is a rich book! I love Cather’s work so much, and I’m already looking forward to finally reading The Song of the Lark, published shortly after O Pioneers!

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