O, Pioneers! by Willa Cather

I’ve been busy reading one of my absolute favourite women writers, Willa Cather, for Virago Reading Week. It was about time I tackled the collection I have built up since arriving in New York – the brilliant but dangerous Strand Books always has lots of lovely original hardcovers of Cather’s works and I normally end up treating myself to one every time I go in. I justify this by the fact that they are not so widely available in England, where I will eventually be returning, so, you know. It’s an investment for the future, obviously.

I adore Willa Cather. Her writing is so sparse and yet so full of subtle, beautiful depth. I love how she writes about the barren, bleak prairie and the quietly desperate lives of ordinary people, who burn and ache and suffer passionately in tucked away corners of the earth. I read O, Pioneers! just after reading about the American immigrant experience in Vincent Cannato’s American Passage, and Cather’s exploration of the harsh and difficult realities of pioneer life on unworked and unyielding land, far from civilization, brought the lives of those I had read about only briefly in American Passage vividly to life.

Alexandra Bergson came to Nebraska as a child with her Swedish parents and siblings. Sensitive and educated, her father had no idea about farming and, at the opening of this sublime novel, after eleven years of attempting to build a life for his family, he has made little impact on the wild prairie he travelled all this way to tame. His two oldest sons, Lou and Oscar, are uninterested in farm work and have no idea about how to use the land to their advantage. It is only Alexandra, the oldest child, and the closest to her father, who understands the rhythm, the beauty, and the potential of the prairie lands that have defeated so many of the neighbouring pioneers who have come to forge a better life. When her father dies, he entrusts the future of the homestead to Alexandra, who dares to go against the advice of those fleeing to the city or to the seemingly more fertile land by the creek, and buys up as much of the surrounding prairie lands as she can. She has faith in the red, flat, dusty wasteland that stretches out as far as the eye can see; she can envision the infinite possibilities it has yet to reveal. Fast forward twenty years, and Alexandra, now in her thirties, is mistress of a prosperous empire, with a home of her own, and enough money to provide for her married brothers and send her much beloved younger brother, Emil, to university.

Alexandra’s determination to succeed, and to provide a better life for Emil, has come at the cost of love and a family life. Her greatest childhood friend, Carl Lindstrum, left her for the city, and life is a lonely place for a single woman playing the role of a man. Alexandra is kind, and generous, and offers assistance and support to all of her neighbours; her judgement on farming issues is trusted by everyone, and her gentle beauty and quiet advice leaves her highly respected amongst the pioneer community. However, her only real friend is the flighty, bubbly Bohemian Marie, who lives next door with her sullen, homesick husband Frank, whose unhappiness will have unbearably tragic consequences for them all. Alexandra is truly wedded to her land, and to the prairie, which stole her heart as a young child. However, her serene appearance and seeming indifference to her lonely situation hides a heart that longs for romance, and the sacrifices she has made to tame the land she so loves sometimes do not seem worthwhile.

Tragedy, heartache and loneliness come to all on these prairie lands; immigrants come for a better life and find themselves beaten and broken by the harsh landscape they have been promised will provide them with riches. Making ends meet is a constant struggle, and keeping the culture and religion of the old country together in small communities of fellow natives  is the only way for many to find peace and happiness in their new home. Alexandra has found success many haven’t, and her sacrifices will reap rewards for future generations, but the hope she holds for education and a life away from the land for her dear brother Emil will not turn out the way she thinks, and ultimately, by the end, Alexandra has realised that no one can own the land, or the future. Alexandra has suffered immensely over her love for the prairie, but ultimately, wonderfully, and rarely for a Cather novel, her sacrifices are rewarded, in part. There is much pain, and sorrow, and struggle, and disappointment out on these flat wilderness lands, but the ultimate beauty of a life lived with passion, and a land whose stunning sublimity fills the soul with a sense of infinite peace and contentment, is, for Alexandra, worth it all.

Cather excels at writing the most beautiful portraits of humanity and nature in a way that takes your breath away. There is great sadness and suffering in O, Pioneers!, but the sense of hopefulness about the future that these pioneers bring with them to America, and the bravery they possess, leaves the impression not of despair, but of the tenacity of the human spirit and our ability to overcome the most debilitating of obstacles, enduring despite it all. I was in awe at the thought of how these groups of European immigrants, who had left everything they had known behind, arrived in the wild and unsettled prairies of America, and through sheer determination and hard work, made a life for themselves and their descendants. It is incredible to think of, when we consider how much we take the towns and cities we live in for granted; once, there was nothing but untouched earth, and we have pioneers like Alexandra Bergson to thank for sacrificing and suffering so much to build a country those who followed them could enjoy as we do today.

Also, reading this from a feminist perspective – because it’s Virago Reading Week, of course – the depiction of Alexandra as a strong, intelligent, practical woman who builds a successful farming empire and provides for the men of her family, is wonderful. Alexandra is belittled and bullied by her brothers, who object to her plans and try to secure the money she has made for their own children, but she stands her ground and refuses to surrender her plans to appease her brothers, who she knows do not have the business acumen she is blessed with. Brave and independent, Alexandra is like no other woman on the prairie, but sadly this makes her an enigma to many, and leaves her lonely. Only her childhood friend Carl values Alexandra for who she is, and it will ultimately be his unconditional love that gives Alexandra the courage to face the future despite the suffering she has experienced in the past. Alexandra is not, however, defined by her relationship with a man, and she is not afraid to spend her life without one, if it means she can be with the land she loves. I found Cather’s depiction of Alexandra powerful and inspiring; she is a true heroine of American literature, and an example of how women should never be fenced in by limited gender stereotypes.

51 comments

  1. Your love of this author has me intrigued enough to pick up a copy of My Antonia this past weekend for a closer look. I didn’t buy it but one of these days I promise to give her a try as I’m convinced that I’m missing out on something special. Alexandra sounds like just the sort of character I loved reading about as a young girl.

    Your image is a powerful one and there is a lot to take in. On a superficial level I am astounded by what looks like a white dress in a yard full of mud!

    1. Darlene, you might find a gift winging its way to you shortly. It might spur you on to read some Cather.😉

      You really are missing out! I know you long for rolling hills and tea parties but there is a beauty in the American pastoral landscape too and I promise you wouldn’t be disappointed! Willa Cather’s writing is truly exquisite and I would actually liken her in some ways to Mollie Panter-Downes, who I know you enjoy! So there! I will convert you!🙂

      Yes – I know many pioneer women were excellent housekeepers but it beggars belief that anyone would wear such a pale coloured dress in such dirty surroundings! The hours you would spend scrubbing out the mud surely wouldn’t be worth it!

  2. I’ve always thought that Willa Cather sounded too bleak, even though I do live on and love the prairies myself! But after this week and your wonderful lyricism about her, as well as the others who’ve read her, I will have to give her a try. (I even have Swedish immigrants in my family! They moved to Saskatchewan, which has to be the Canadian Nebraska, and my grandparents endured the depression there. I was looking at a family tree last night, amazed to see relatives from Finland, England, Ireland, Scotland, Prussia and more, all slowly making their way west, to Ontario or the US and later, to the Canadian prairies.)

    1. Well Carolyn, the thing is, she IS bleak, but in a way that makes you feel hopeful rather than depressed. It’s difficult to express how she effects you and you sort of have to read her to really understand just how powerful and beautiful her writing is. Try her try her try her! I think Lucy Gayheart remains my favourite and that really is a gorgeous but admittedly sad book.

      How wonderful about your family history! As a city girl I couldn’t even contemplate living somewhere as remote as the prairies but I’d love to go and see them myself to better understand all this wonderful pioneer literature I’m reading. You are lucky getting to live in such a beautiful place.

  3. Thanks for the beautiful review, Rachel! I just finished this book. There were many things that I found beautiful and inspiring, but there were also aspects that made me think and left me disturbed.

    I find Cather’s writing to be lyrical and moving. She is brilliant at conjuring up an image. This first part felt like a series of snapshots of the prairie before it had been tamed, and it really gave me a sense of the land and the people at that time.

    I also found Alexandra to be an inspiring female character for all the reasons you gave. The scene where her brothers confront her about Carl, and she holds her own really made me want to cheer her on.

    One aspect of Cather’s writing that I find thought provoking is her depiction of the land. I feel that she both reflects the American idea of “manifest destiny” in that she sees that the land can be worked and cultivated by people with vision like Alexandra, but she also sees that the land has a wild element that cannot be owned. In the end, she shows that human beings can do anything if they set their minds to it.

    Living in Canada and reading Canadian literature, I find it easy to juxtapose American literature with it. Even though Canada is an immigrant country that also faced wilderness terrain, Canadian lit. looks at the land much differently. The wilderness here often cannot be tamed and made to yield in any way, especially up north, so Canadian lit. ofter looks at the land with a mixture of fear and aversion (Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso) or fear and deep respect/awe (Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay). I feel when I read Canadian lit., it engenders humility while American lit. makes me feel more confident about life.

    The element that I found disturbing and ambivalent was Cather’s treatment of Emil and Marie. On the one hand, at times, she showed much sympathy towards the two. At other times, she showed heavy judgment against them. I wondered whether Cather was using them to show how the wildness of the prairie had to be purged. Although I don’t approve of the behaviour, I found the judgment leveled against them harsh.

    1. Virginia, you express your thoughts so much more beautifully than I did – thank you, you’ve made me think more deeply into my reading. I love your comparison of Canadian and American literature and the different attitudes towards the land – I suspect it does show the essential difference between the psyches of Americans and Canadians (who are much more British in their humility) and how the nature of the land in the two countries can allow some men to prosper and others to be defeated. I’ve never seen the Canadian or the American wildernesses and I would love to, to gain a better understanding of the world Cather describes. I would also love to read more Canadian literature – your recommendations have been noted!

      Yes, that whole section was a little unsettling. Cather seemed to imply that they deserved what they got, but at the same time, I think she was showing that people like them can’t survive in places like the priarie – you have to be physically and emotionally strong, and rein in your personal ambitions and passions, in order to survive. I like the idea of them being a metaphor for the prairie and how wildness had to be beaten out of it – I like that a lot! I don’t know how I feel about it ultimately – I was shocked and then at the same time I could understand the position she had Alexandra take. Their behaviour was foolish and brought shame to the family, but at the same time, they didn’t ever really do anything wrong. It’s a troublesome point, and perhaps Cather introduced it to show how human desire should be brought into check if we want to progress as a people.

      Overall though, it is a sublime novel, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it too. I loved reading your insights, thank you so much!

      1. Thanks for your thoughts! And you express your thoughts very beautifully; I love the way you write.

        After second thought, Wild Geese may not be a good example of fear/aversion to the land in Canadian lit., although it is a prairie novel and would be interesting to read along side Cather. A better example (although I read this a long time ago in undergrad so I may be remembering incorrectly) would be Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie. It’s an English woman’s account of her time “roughing it in the bush” in Canada, just after she immigrates. I didn’t find it pleasant reading (she’s very whiny), but it does show a less hopeful and optimistic side to the immigrant experience.

      2. Thank you Virginia! I have heard of Susanna Moodie before – I’m sure she’s mentioned in Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I think she came across the real life Grace Marks when on her travels.

        I will have to seek that book out – thank you for the recommendation. You are teaching me so much!

      3. I just have to jump in, since Canadian literature is being discussed (even though sadly I don’t read enough of it) — I think Atwood has even written poems based off/inspired by Susanna Moodie’s writing. Another Canadian prairie author (who’s also published by Virago!) is Margaret Laurence, I read A Bird in the House in school and really liked it, it’s interconnected short stories set in Manitoba exploring family and she uses Canadian animals to symbolize and explore different characters, which I really liked. The Stone Angel is her most famous novel, she always has strong women struggling to survive out in these harsh surroundings and dealing with their families but I think they’re set more in the early 20th century than the 19th.

        I really liked the insights you shared, Virginia! (And wish you had a blog so I could read it!)

      4. Thanks, Carolyn! I haven’t read any Margaret Laurence, so I’ll definitely have to look into The Stone Angel and A Bird in the House.

  4. Lovely review — I especially like how you describe it as “sparse and yet so full of subtle, beautiful depth.” — that’s a perfect description. Her writing is so much like the landscapes she describes. I actually lived in Nebraska for a few years but not on the prairie, we were in Omaha which is just across the Iowa border. I’ll always have a special interest in Cather because of it.

    And I love the photo, particularly the cow on the roof!🙂

    1. Thank you Karen! I am glad you are a fellow fan of Cather. I am slightly jealous that you’ve lived in Nebraska – despite it’s status as a flyover state, it sounds so mesmerisingly beautiful, and a truly unique and simple place to live, in Cather’s novels. I’d love to be able to go there one day. Did you ever go and visit Cather’s house?

      I know, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? It certainly gives me a better idea of what Little House on the Prairie life must have been like!

  5. Beautiful post-I have been planning to start my reading of Willa Cather with some short stories and have now pushed this plan to the front!

  6. This is perhaps by the by but sharing the same name as the heroine of this book I feel obliged to comment that I think I became a feminist the day I read my mother’s Name the Baby book and discovered that Alexander meant Leader of Men and Alexandra meant Helper of Leader of Men !🙂

  7. I need to revisit O, Pioneers! I’ve read it once, but I don’t think I took in the relationship with the land which you so beautifully describe. I’ll never forget the burning red dust in My Antonia. Cather is such a great writer. In Hermione Lee’s biography, she visits Red Cloud, Nebraska to research Cather’s life and work.

    1. The land is such an important character, Nicola – in a way it is the partner of Alexandra more than Carl ends up being, I think. Oh yes – My Antonia is just breathtaking, and the depictions of the landscape are even more arresting. I am enjoying reading about a prairie town, as well, which O,Pioneers doesn’t really touch on. I really want to read that biography! I have heard such good things about it.

  8. I read Death Comes for the Archbishop last year and loved it. I really want to read more of Willa Cather! I have Song of the Lark on my shelves already, but I must say, this one sounds fantastic!

    1. I have yet to read that one, Emily Jane, but it’s on my shelf reading to go! The Song of the Lark sounds fantastic – a few people have reviewed it for Virago Reading Week and have got me desperate to pick it up now! O, Pioneers is wonderful, though – and short! So a good one to go to if you want a burst of Cather.

    1. Thank you! O, Pioneers! is truly incredible and as you enjoyed her short stories I can assure you you’ll love this! Great Angela Carter review – I’ll make sure you get a mention! Thanks so much for taking part!

  9. O Pioneers! is my favorite Cather novel so far. The many Cather posts this week have me wishing I’d chosen one of her novels (although I am very much enjoying Eudora Welty) . The Strand can certainly be dangerous… how long will you be in the US?

    1. I think it’s going to be one of my favourites, JoAnn, though I think I enjoyed Lucy Gayheart a little more. There is plenty of time to read Cather, and Eudora Welty is wonderful anyway – great choice! I know, I know! I will be here until September so I have quite some time yet!

  10. I actually live in Nebraska (Omaha) and am embarrassed to say that for years I didn’t read Willa Cather as she had been thrust at us by my high school English teacher as someone “we must read”. Being a pigheaded teenager I, of course, refused to do what my teacher told me I should. So I have come to her work as an adult, but in some ways I think I appreciate her far more now than I ever would have as a schoolgirl. O, Pioneers was the first book of hers that I read a number of years ago. It’s faded a bit from my memory, so your post brings back good recollections. However it’s the books that I read last year, My Antonia and The Professors House that really hooked me. So I had to nod my head to my English teacher and say a silent–sorry I ignored you–and promise to make my way through her work. She really is a wonderful and important writer. And I suspect the best white dress was chosen carefully for the photo–surely an important event–despite the mud!🙂

    1. Danielle, anyone you’re told you ‘must’ read instantly become a chore! I am glad you have become a fan of Cather in later yeas now, and I am excited to read The Professor’s House as you say it has stuck with you. I would love to see Nebraska and I would imagine that the descriptions of the land there have more power for you as you actually know what it’s like. Your English teacher would be proud of you now, singing Cather’s praises!

  11. And, despite having lived here all my life I have yet to visit Red Cloud, which is something I do hope to rectify sometime–it’s on the other side of the state from Omaha, so not an easy place to visit when you don’t have a car. Someday!

    1. Danielle! Shameful! But yes – Nebraska IS a big place. So I understand! I looked it up on my big USA map and was shocked at how huge it is. Probably bigger than England!

    1. Thank you, Mystica – it has been wonderful, hasn’t it? So glad you’re enjoying the reviews and that you’re picking up on new authors through them. I hope you get to try Cather soon.

  12. Is Death Comes for the Archbishop a good sample of a Willa Cather book? It is the one with the title that sounds least depressing and miserable of all Willa Cather’s books. Death Comes for the Archbishop?

  13. Another book you have made me determined to read!
    My Antonia is the only one of Willa Cather’s that I’ve read so I’ll move on to this one next.
    I liked your phrase, ‘no one owns the future’ and your unique way of summing up a tale with enthusiasm and affection.
    And isn’t it interesting how many of your readers know the prairies? Sidcup seems worlds away!

    1. Glad to hear it, Chrissy! I am certain you would love it.
      Thank you! It was a tricky review to write – doing justice to Cather is a difficult job.
      I know! Doesn’t it just! I can’t imagine a novel being set in Sidcup being very romantic at all. I’m trying to think of Cather-esque words to describe it but I can think of none whatsoever!

  14. Willa Cather, who wouldn’t like her writing? Her portrayal of the courage and determination of pioneers inspiring. I am a prairie dweller myself and love the open spaces. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking post.

    1. I know! I’m surprised that she is so little read nowadays. She truly is one of the greatest writers America has produced. I love her books and the new worlds she has introduced me too. I love that you are a prairie dweller – I long to see them one day. You are welcome! Thank you for reading and for your lovely comment.

  15. As you read more Cather, please don’t overlook SAPPHIRA AND THE SLAVE GIRL–it’s not “typical” of Cather, but a very good book, none-the-less.

    One a related note, there’s a non-fiction book by David Laskin called THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD, about a terrible blizzard that unexpectedly hit Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota in January 1888 and eventually killed over 500 people. It became known as “the children’s blizzard” because so many of the victims were children who had gone to school that morning in light clothing because the weather that morning was so mild. In the book, Laskin writes about the terrible struggles people had farming the land–the unpredictable weather, the long winters, the unforgiving soil, the plagues of grasshoppers (which also show up in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE books). He also comments in his afterword that many of those homesteads and farms so tirelessly carved out of the prairie have now been abandoned and fallen into disuse, and the prairie is taking back the land that was farmed with back-breaking labor for over a century.

    1. Hi Deb – don’t worry, I have Sapphira and the Slavegirl on my TBR pile by my bed – I will get to it very soon. Thank you for the recommendation!

      That sounds terribly tragic – how awful. The book sounds very interesting as background reading though, and I shall see if the library has it. Thank you for the recommendation!

  16. Rachel, you capture O, Pioneers – and Willa Cather – so brilliantly here in your review.

    This is one of my favorite stories, though it came to me first by a Hallmark movie some years ago. The movie led me to the book, which is always so much better. I think it is the bleakness of the landscapes and the sparseness of Cather’s prose that, in the end, makes her writing so beautiful. The thought that the land does not belong to us is such a strong theme throughout this book that I have always found unsettling, because I want to be in control, ha, but, none-the-less true.

    It is often said that it was the pioneers, the homesteaders, that made this American country what it is. They bravely moved westward into the unknown, breaking their backs, and often their spirits, in search of a better life for their children and their children’s children. Somewhere in time, I fear we may have lost this. Ah, but that is a story for future generations to tell, I suppose.

    An interesting book, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, might be of some enjoyment to you sometime, Rachel. It was often the women who were left, as in Cather’s novel, to make the land work. Men went off to other things; war, new adventures, prospecting, death. The women often stayed. Letters . . . is the story on one such woman.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment, Penny. It is unsettling that ultimately we are at the mercy of mother nature – not easy for us to accept! I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for the pioneers, trying to break a land that had never been farmed before. They worked so hard and I wonder whether many of them lived to reap the benefits – I doubt it. I agree that we seem to have lost this spirit now – people are so intent on making money instantly by any means, and they have lost the value of hard work and tenacity.

      I like the sound of that book you recommend – I’d be very interested in reading that. I shall see if the library has it!

  17. You’ve read/read more than I do.

    So I can’t contribute with any blah about this and blah</i) about that, and so forth. But your….not blah is always nice, regardless.

    In particular, I've not read any Cather but she's been on my TBR list for a while.

    Is she like Steinbeck? I read the Grapes of Wrath (and a few others of his) a long time ago, and remember it as a powerful and beautiful book.

    1. Oh Bop, you are funny! I am sure you have lots of wonderful things to say about books – you don’t need to have read widely to have valuable insights!

      Cather is well worth reading – obviously I would say that! I could compare Cather and Steinbeck in the sense that they both have a very simple writing style and the land features prominently in their work. However Steinbeck’s is a very masculine prose I find, and Cather’s has a delicacy about it that is very feminine.

      1. Sense of humour too.

        Can I tempt you with a bleak windswept moor, and a wild mysterious disposition?

      2. Ha! Are you trying to make me read Wuthering Heights? Because I hate that book! I keep reading it to try and find the genius but I cannot find anything in it to like!

  18. This is a lovely post. Willa Cather is often my favorite author (my tastes can vary a bit over time, though never by too much!) The images that she creates seem to linger in my mind. My two favorites are Song of the Lark and Shadows on the Rock. I love all her books. In O Pioneers you can see how the land entwines itself with the settlers. It’s almost like a diety. It demands tribute and promises reward.
    Song of the Lark, as I’m sure you know, is about the creation of an artist. I’d say talent is the god in that book. Shadows on the Rock is wonderful. It has a young girl as the central character. And I guess i’d say it’s about civilization. Though that’s a little like saying Moby Dick is about a whale!

    I do love your blog. I’m getting all sorts of tips on what to read next. So thank you, very much!

    1. Thank you, Nancy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Willa Cather is a very visual writer and I find myself haunted for days by her characters when I have finished her books. I haven’t read either of your favourites to my regret but I am planning on reading my way through her entire works so I shall get to them eventually. I love what you say about the land and the settlers in O Pioneers. It certainly does both those things.

      Thank you! I am so glad you found me and I look forward to seeing you around!

  19. I’ve yet to read any Cather (for some reason I always get her mixed up with Welty, whose novels I also haven’t read), but I think your description of her prose may have convinced me to try her soon. Do you think this one is a good starting point for her work?

    1. I can see that – their writing is somewhat similar. I’m glad I’ve managed to convince you to try Cather – she truly is superb and one of the greatest finds I’ve made in recent years. I think O, Pioneers! is definitely a good place to start as it’s short and has a lot of the themes of her work distilled within it. Then move onto Lucy Gayheart, my favourite so far.

  20. Such a beautiful review – I can’t wait to read this! Sadly I was a bit disappointed with My Antonia, although I think this is mostly because I was reading it hoping it would be a pioneer story about how brave men and women tamed the prairies – so the process of cultivating quite a harsh and unforgiving landscape. I think that it is mostly because I was hoping for this type of story that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate MA. I should be posting about this soon though.

    1. Thank you! It really is a lovely, atmospheric novel that moved me immensely. I just finished My Antonia today and I thought it was brilliant – perhaps the story you wanted will be found in O, Pioneers! I found it a really rewarding experience to read them one after the other as the knowledge of prairie life and the emphasis on the land in O, Pioneers fed into the background of My Antonia, which is much more character based. I look forward to reading your comments!

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