Originally I had decided to read Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather but after beginning it, and not particularly getting into it, I decided to read O Pioneers! instead which was published in 1913. It’s the first of Cather’s Great Plains Trilogy (followed by Song of the Lark and My Antonia). I have to tell you, Willa Cather has a way with words! Her prose is almost poetry at times. Below are the first sentences in the book…
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.
What great word pictures! Can’t you just see it? And feel the cold?
O Pioneers! is the story of Alexandra, the daughter of John Bergson, a Swedish immigrant who brought his family to Nebraska in the 1870’s. Farming the Nebraska prairie was challenging and many failed. The land “was like a wild horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces.”
From the time she was about 12 years old she was a help to her father, and he came to depend on her more and more as she grew, due to her resourcefulness and good judgment. She “read the papers and followed the markets, and learned by the mistakes of her neighbors.”
And so it was that after John dies the leadership of the family passes to Alexandra who is the oldest, and only about 20 at the time. As he lay dying John instructs his sons to “be guided by your sister, boys, and be good brothers to her…”
The book follows Alexandra, and her 3 brothers over a period of about 20 years, as well as various neighbors whose lives intersect, sometimes tragically. There are love stories, weddings, births, deaths and even murder, much to keep you turning the pages.
It will be awhile before I forget this story. There is much to ponder in the pages. As usual, there were a number of passages I just had to share with my family, like the one below.
Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring.
“Passion of spring.” What an idea that evokes to the reader.
The writing is excellent, as I’ve already said, but some of her conclusions were challenging to me, and I found myself arguing with Cather at times. Her world view didn’t always line up with mine. But that’s not a bad thing at all. We need to be challenged to think and to draw our own conclusions.
I hope you’ll add this one to your “to be read” stack. And if you do, let me know what you think of it.