Thursday, June 12, 2014

The romance of the frontier

Willa Cather is one of those authors that so many American feminists love.  She writes about pioneer women - strong, hard-working, and realistic.  At this point, I've only ever read O, Pioneers!  by her, but I like her style.  I do wish she wrote a little bit more about the culture clashes of Americans vs Native Americans and even between different European immigrant cultures, but maybe she thought writing about strong and heroic women was enough and didn't want to water her book down with other themes, too.

O, Pioneers! is the first book in a trilogy of books that feature strong women set in Nebraska in the early 20th century.  If you're American, you probably have very vivid imaginings of this lifestyle.  Horizons that stretch forever, tiny cabins dotting the landscape, hardscrabble families working land that was not necessarily intended for farming, barn-raisings, never-ending fields of wheat, covered wagons, the Oregon Trail, etc., etc.  If you're not American, you may have a more difficult time evoking this era immediately to mind, but I would say that Cather does quite a good job of bringing it to life in this novel.

Alexandra Bergson is our guide through this novel.  A Swedish immigrant, she takes on the task of working the land and raising her brothers while very young, after her father dies.  Alexandra is savvy and stubborn, though, two excellent traits in a pioneer, and through good decisions and a lot of hard work, she makes her homestead a success.  She also mentors a lonely, beautiful neighbor, sends her youngest brother to college, misses the man she fell in love with as a girl (though she never pines for him or feels sorry for herself), and does all sorts of other things.

I can't quite explain how hard it was to write that plot summary because this book is not really about plot.  That is, there is one Big Plot Thing that happens, but to me it felt very different from the rest of the book.  I don't think that Cather wrote this book to center on the Big Plot Thing, I think she wrote it to talk about life on the prairie, and the Big Plot Thing was just one method she used to share that with readers.

So, life on the prairie.  It was hard.  While Alexandra and her neighbors are strong and able people, there was such a sense of loneliness and isolation in this book.  The prairie is unforgiving and harsh, and you could feel Alexandra just want to take a break sometimes.  But she never could.  And there were other people around her, such as her bubbly, beautiful and vivacious friend who was kind and good but just was not made for life on the prairie and would have been much better off in the city.

What I liked most about this book was the way that Cather made every character sympathetic.  She did not judge people, even if her characters did.  Instead, she would provide us with multiple perspectives to show how different people react to the same situation.  It gave readers the ability to really know the people who populated this book, which I appreciated.  I didn't come to like that many of them, but I understood them a little bit better than I would have if I had been in Alexandra's head the whole time.

Not that Alexandra's head was such a bad place to be.  Alexandra was wonderful.  She was strong, straight-forward, and willing to fight for what she wanted.  I loved the feminist streak in her.  For example, her brothers would keep telling her that women had no head for business, and she would calmly point out that all their success on the farm was due to her ideas.  They would say that they had done the physical labor, and she said that she did a lot of labor, too.  Her brothers were all very well and happy when they thought she would die alone and leave all her land to them; she told them quite frankly that she would do whatever she wanted with her land and they'd just have to deal with it.


So the Big Plot Thing was a little odd, the characters (especially Alexandra) were great, but what really makes me recommend this book to you is the writing.  Honestly, Willa Cather writes prose like poetry.  I wish I had read this in physical form rather than via audiobook, but I loved the language on audiobok, too, I just couldn't note down my favorite quotes.  She has the ability to paint beautiful landscapes with her words.  I feel like I overuse the word lyrical, and I don't know if that is even an appropriate word here because it's not like she writes in a flowery style.  She writes with words that just bring everything to life.  I don't know how else to explain it, so I hope you just trust me.

I look forward to reading more Cather!  Luckily, she wrote many stories, including short stories, which I hear are glorious.


  1. Anonymous6/12/2014

    Glad you have found Cather and appreciate her. She is a favorite of mine. I love her women and her description of the landscape I know and love. Her family and the characters in her book are moving into places that Native Americans had already been driven off of. She and they can pretend the land really is empty and theirs to claim. A creature of her time. They didn't have to think of themselves as colonizers. Her women remind me of my grandmother who befriended Sitting Bull and his people in the Dakotas. The only way she could write about Native Americans was as people of the past, as she does in my favorite book of hers, Song of the Lark. I don't like its ending, but her depiction of the canyons and a woman's aspirations are wonderful.

    Have you read My Temple, too? I just finished it and struggling with a review. Awesome.

    1. I have not read My Temple at all - I will have to look it up as I've never even heard of it.

      Have you ever read J. California Cooper? I am reading her Life is Short But Wide right now. I think she is similar to Cather in focusing on the west (though she goes from late 1920s to the 90s and beyond, I think), but also has the African-American perspective. Similar writing style. I think you would really like her.

  2. Never pined, oh she won me over with that

  3. I absolutely adored this book as well as My Antonia and The Professor's House. Sadly, I can hardly remember anything about any of them except how much I loved the writing style. I have some Cather re-reading on my list for this year.

  4. I have this one on my classics club list and I am looking forward to it. I liked My Antonia but as I'm British, I did find it hard to get to grips with the frontier and what life was like. I think it'll be easier on my second try.

  5. I have wanted to read Willa Cather for so long, I know so many people who adore her writing and stories, and I've just added this review to the list of reasons why I should make that happen sooner rather than later!

  6. Anonymous6/18/2014

    I can highly recommend My Antonia. I think I like it even more than O Pioneers!

    The lives Cather portrays are fairly close to my own ancestors who came from Scandinavia and Germany and settled on the Great Plains 1900 to 1930. My own grandmother even went west in a covered wagon as a girl. From her stories I conclude there really was not much of a Native American population left by the time they arrived. My grandmother wrote about seeing a small group of Indians along the road. It was very much a novelty.

    I still think you're right to bring up this point, though. But, readers will have to go to writers other than Cather. It's not something she is interested in.


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