Saturday, March 16, 2013


The word "pioneer" has a slightly different meaning for us Mormons who usually think of our ancestors who crossed the plains from Illinois to Utah in the days of Brigham Young when they faced such intense religious persecution. But like the more typical image of the lonely pioneers who settled the West, they also faced a hard and unforgiving land that demanded hard work and more than just a little luck. My own Green family ancestors became unlikely pioneers when they joined the church in their native England and immigrated in the 1850s, crossing the plains with handcarts and settling where they were asked to go by church leaders. For some it was a hard life but most seem to have found plenty of happiness as well.

When my son was assigned to read books by Willa Cather I figured it might help if I read them, too. O Pioneers! is the first in Cather's "Great Plains" trilogy, and is about the Bergson family of Swedish immigrants in Nebraska around the turn of the century. The oldest daughter, Alexandra, is tough and serious, and her father leaves her in charge of the family homestead on his deathbed instead of her brothers, Lou and Oscar. She later proves her smarts in the midst of a drought when most immigrant families are losing their farms. Although her brothers want to sell the land, she notices rich men buying everything cheaply. Instead of selling, she proposes they borrow money and buy more land, and eventually they become well-to-do farmers. Even then, her brothers continue to be scornful of her ideas.

A recurring theme of the book is relationships. Alexandra feels a relationship to the land, even if it's not always a loving one. She understands that the life of a farmer isn't easy and can be harsh, but she also sees and feels its beauty in a way others don’t. On the other hand she's not as comfortable socially and is neither a warm person nor good at reading people, sometimes with grave consequences.

But even when her relationship with Lou and Oscar deteriorates, she remains loving and protective to her youngest brother, Emil, the baby of the family. As the family prospers, Alexandra saves him from a life of backbreaking labor and provides for him to get an education. But Emil’s situation is complicated by the fact that he's in love with the beautiful and beguiling Bohemian girl Marie Tovesky. Unfortunately, she impulsively marries the intense Frank Shabata, and although their relationship is limited by her marriage they continue to pine for each other. Another less romantic relationship in the story is between Alexandra and Carl Linstrum, a neighbor whose family left during the drought, but who later returns to visit.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this story, especially at the beginning (the ending got a little… well, tragic). With the emphasis on the land I was reminded of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Wang Lung also had a connection with the land, although slightly different from Alexandra, and both have to deal with troublesome relatives – Wang Lung’s sons and Alexandra’s brothers – who have less esteem for the land and become overconfident in their prosperity. Both the sons and the brothers marry women who desire a softer life and enjoy social prominence. Likewise, Alexandra’s farming success as a woman in a “man’s world” reminded me of Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and Alexandra’s brothers are condescending toward their sister even though she’s the primary reason for their affluence. Both stories also share an admiration for the beauty of the land.

But the tone of O Pioneers! is reflective of the flat land of the Great Plains as well, being sometimes spare and harsh. Dialog is often plain and unpretentious, and characters are described more by their actions than their words and thoughts and Cather resorts to stereotypes with some. In fact, she waxes poetic mostly when describing the land, whether a beautiful misty morning with ducks swimming on a pond or the bitter wind of winter trying to blow the awkward human habitations off the plain. And for most of the book that’s what held my attention, and I ended up reading it in just a couple of days. It was the ending that left me feeling less satisfied than I had been, but maybe I’ll read the next in the series – if for nothing else than to help my son with his schoolwork.

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