Read O Pioneers by Willa Cather Free Online
Book Title: O Pioneers|
The author of the book: Willa Cather
Date of issue: January 28th 1996
ISBN 13: 9780395075166
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 878 KB
Edition: Houghton Mifflin (T)
Read full description of the books O Pioneers:
I was entranced by the Nebraska prairie and a wonderful leading woman, living a century ago: a time and place I have never been, but which leaped from the pages, with simple craftsmanship, to sculpt the landscape of my mind’s eye, as Alexandra transformed both her fields and the lives of those around her.
The final thirteen pages felt written by or about a different person, not the author and protagonist I thought I knew.
The novel opens with a poem contrasting the harsh landscape with the power of youth to trigger change, including:
“Evening and the flat land…
The toiling horses, the tired men…
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses…
Flashing like a star out of the twilight...”
Part I – The Wild Land
At barely twenty, Alexandra Bergson takes over her late father’s land, aided by hard-working but risk-averse brothers Lou and Oscar (aged 17 and 19). She has big plans to try new things, buy more land, employ farmhands, and get little Emil (aged 5) educated.
Alexandra is the leading person, but the landscape is the main character. Everyone in The Divide is an outsider, identified by their heritage (Swedish, French, Bohemian etc), as they strive to survive and conquer the harsh and unfamiliar soil and climate, while battling blizzards, prairie dogs, snakes, cholera, and debt. Many cling to “the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable. But this land was an enigma” and there is the constant fear that “men were too weak to make a mark here”. But Alexandra is a woman.
First impressions are conjured by short plain words: gray, anchored, haphazard, howling wind, frozen, straying, straggled, open plain, impermanence, tough prairie sod.... The simple, but carefully chosen language of landscape reminds me of Kent Haruf’s Colorado high plains (see my reviews of Plainsong and Eventide).
The vast, bleak, and beautiful place, whose capricious moods both give and take life, reminds me of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Iceland (see my reviews HERE).
Part II – Neighboring Fields
Sixteen years later and the writing style is the same, but the landscape is transformed: checker-board fields, white roads at right angles, telephone cables, steel windmills, gaily painted farmhouses (rather than being made of sod), and gilded weather vanes.
“The brown earth, with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it” now “It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back.” Humans have won, Alexandra chief among them. “The land… had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right”.
Freed from the stress of basic survival, pleasure can sometimes be indulged: friendships and marriages formed, children born, the adventure of university. But it’s the tentative relationships that quietly dominate in the shadows, the ones that society can’t condone. (view spoiler)[Unhappily married Marie picks cherries, while Emil scythes the grass of her orchard. (hide spoiler)]
The soil of success can also nourish discord, greed and jealousy. (view spoiler)[Lou and Oscar fear Alexandra will marry impoverished childhood friend Carl. They assert that “The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family”. She gently reminds them that they each had their share when they married, and lists the many things she did to build their wealth, which they belittle and dismiss. Shades of The Little Red Hen and The Prodigal Son. (hide spoiler)]
“People have to snatch happiness when they can… It’s always easier to lose than to find.” The second half is undoubtedly true, but the first half ignores the possible price paid by others.
Part III – Winter Memories
“The season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring.” Just as the frozen ground hides and protects, those mourning loss, absence, and what cannot be feel comfort that deep down, “the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again!”
Part IV – The White Mulberry Tree
“The sun was hanging low over the wheatfield. Long fingers of light reached through the apple branches as though a net; the orchard was riddled and shot with gold; light was the reality, the trees were merely interferences that reflected and refracted light.”
There’s an idyllic veneer (white mulberries: how succulent, beautiful, and pure - but they’re next to the cherries). However, many of the characters are hurting, longing, trying to suppress things, and there is a sense of possible doom.
“Always the same yearning, the same pulling the chain - until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman.”
Part V – Alexandra
Thirteen pages of betrayal. Betrayal in the story, but I felt betrayed as a reader.
For the first four sections, I was in awe of Alexandra: intelligent, practical, principled, loyal, generous, and determined, but “armoured in calm” and with charm and persuasiveness. Somehow, Cather makes this admirable woman entirely believable and likeable.
Alexandra is never passive (nor even deferential), never aggressive, and not even passive-aggressive - except when a man makes an unwelcome compliment on her hair, to which “she stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness”. She just does the research, takes calculated risks, and firmly but gently demonstrates the best way to do things, getting her way, without pressuring anyone.
She is aspirational for her family, especially Emil and niece Molly, but loves her land more than any possessions. She is conventional enough to attend church regularly, and although “She liked plain things”, she bows to “the general conviction that the more useless and utterly unusable objects were, the greater their virtue as ornament.”. But she fiercely defends the rights of others to live, dress, and think differently, even to the detriment of her own relationships and reputation, most notably by taking in Ivar, a barefoot, Bible-loving, bird-loving, vegetarian, and amateur veterinarian who has visions.
In this final section, everything changes. I try not to judge an old book solely by my own times, but how Alexandra reacts, over several months, to the dramatic end of the previous section, doesn’t fit with how Cather had portrayed her thus far. To get to this ending, Alexandra should have been a different person all along; not radically different, but different.
BIG spoilers (view spoiler)[
We know early on that Frank “looked like a rash and violent man” and that Marie’s neighbours put up with him for her sake. He broods, feels wronged by his lack of closeness to his wife, but lacks the proof of why or who. “He knew that somewhere she must have a feeling to live upon.” And “His unhappy temper was like a cage”, not realising “that he made his own unhappiness.”
At the end of section IV, Frank finds Emil and Marie cuddled up under the white mulberry tree, shoots them, and flees. It wasn’t exactly pre-meditated, but it was clearly murder.
As she describes what happens, Cather seeks to excuse Frank to some extent, “When Frank took up his gun… he had not the faintest purpose of doing anything with it.” And “His blood was quicker than his brain”.
Frank blames his wife, “She knew he was like a crazy man when he was angry. She had more than once taken that gun away from him and held it, when he was angry with other people… When she knew him, why had n’t she been more careful?” Ultimately, “Why had Marie made him do this thing?”
I don’t accept those excuses, but I can (just) believe that Cather and Frank do. What I could not believe was Alexandra’s reaction to the murder of her beloved brother, in whom all her hopes were invested. She not only blames herself and Marie, but goes further, and seeks to get Frank pardoned and released! “He had been less in the wrong than any of them, and he was paying the heaviest penalty.” “She could understand his [Frank’s] behaviour more easily than she could understand Marie’s… She blamed Marie bitterly.”
I know that shock and grief can lead to guilt where none belongs. Muddled thinking in the aftermath of trauma is common. But not to that extent and for so long. It wasn't as if religious faith had played an important part in her life (church community, yes, but that's a different matter), and even devout Christians would not necessarily think forgiveness involved petitioning for punishment to be rescinded.
And then, an excessively quick and easy happy-ever-after with Carl is bolted on.
I don't crave happy or even tidy endings. I've read books where I've been stunned in a positive way (Stoner, and Stefansson's Heaven and Hell triptych, and Toibin's Testament of Mary come to mind), and others where I've felt the last few pages unnecessary, and perhaps diluted the force of the main narrative (Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible). But this just jarred. It tainted the preceding sections. What would have been a 5* book only just scrapes 4*.
No plot spoilers; they’re hidden for brevity.
• “The stern frozen country received them into its bosom… The great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes.”
• “The rough land, the smiling sky, the curly grass white in the hot sunlight… the rapturous song of the lark.”
• “It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious, Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.”
• “A pioneer should have imagination.” And the dedication to research alternatives, as Alexandra does.
• “The right thing to do is usually just what everybody else don’t do.”
• “His love of routine amounted to a vice… he felt there was sovereign virtue in mere bodily toil.”
• “Down there they have a little certainty, but up with us there is a big chance.”
• “The highly varnished wood and colored class and useless pieces of china were conspicuous enough to satisfy the standards of the new prosperity.”
• “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere.”
• “The dawn… looked like the light from some great fire that was burning under the edge of the world… Carl sat musing until the sun leaped above the prairie… The pasture was flooded with light… and the golden lighted seemed to be rippling through the curly grass like the tide racing in.”
• A forbidden kiss, “The veil that had hung uncertainly between them for so long was dissolved… It was like a sigh which they had breathed together; almost sorrowful, as if each were afraid of waking something in the other.”
• “She felt as the pond must feel when it held the moon… when it encircled and held that image of gold.”
• “The sullen grey twilight of the storm.”
• “I can’t pray to have the things I want… and I won’t pray not to have them.”
• “With the memory he left her, she could be as rash as she chose.”
Image of Nebraskan prairie:
The title of this novel is a nod to Walt Whitman’s poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers, published in Leaves of Grass in 1865 (Cather’s novel was published in 1913).
Read information about the authorWilella Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley (Gore), Virginia, in December 7, 1873. Her novels on frontier life brought her to national recognition. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours (1922), set during World War I. She grew up in Virginia and Nebraska. She then attended the University of Nebraska, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English. After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter moving to New York City for the remainder of her life. She traveled widely and often spent summers in New Brunswick, Canada. In later life, she experienced much negative criticism for her conservative politics and became reclusive, burning some of her letters and personal papers, including her last manuscript. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author's total accomplishments. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 73 in New York City.
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