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.