Review: O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather
by Rich Horton
Last week right after I finished My Ántonia I sort of by accident read O Pioneers! -- in a single sitting, literally. (Sitting in the emergency room waiting for my wife to get to see a doctor. (In the end, she didn't -- we left. And she's OK. It should have been an urgent care visit anyway.)) So, what the heck, I'll review it too!
Anyway, back to O Pioneers! It's a short novel (about 50,000 words.) It's the first of what is called her "Prairie Trilogy" -- along with The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia. In a way I feel like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia along with A Lost Lady are a better "trilogy", all set in Nebraska towns that very much resemble the Red Cloud of Cather's childhood. (Song of the Lark is set in Colorado (and in non-prairie places like Chicago and Germany!)
O Pioneers! is primarily the story of Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant to Nebraska. We meet her as a teenager. She and her little brother Emil are in town, shopping, and the boy's cat has run up a street lamp. Alexandra fetches her friend Carl Linstrum, who shinnies up the pole and fetches the cat. And then they head home, where Alexandra's father is dying. And we realize that Alexandra, only about 14, must be the head of her family.
The story is told in third person, but Carl Linstrum becomes in a way the person through whom we see Alexandra -- and, also, the other major woman character, Marie Tovesky. So he sort of resembles Jim Burden from My Ántonia, though certainly Jim and Carl are different people, as are Alexandra and Ántonia. And over the years, as Carl goes to university, heads to St. Louis to become an engraver, then to the Klondike gold rush, then back to Nebraska, he encounters Alexandra again and again, sees how she has made a great success of the Bergson farm, though, as she says once, she's often lonely. Alexandra's brothers have a harder time of it, though they benefit from her success -- though Emil, the best of them, perhaps, has special problems. And there is always Marie Tovesky, who fascinates Emil, but who unhappily marries another man ...
There is tragedy aplenty in this novel, and one particularly lurid event. But, too, there is as ever the land, and the people either being conquered by it or conquering. And Alexandra, strong, simple, stolid, unimaginative but intelligent and ambitious, is certainly in that sense a conquerer. Marie is the contrast to her -- very imaginative, loving, not at all simple. The novel ends in a marriage, but it is in no sense a romance. It's effective, and sometimes beautiful -- but it's not the novel My Ántonia is -- in some ways it seems sort of a rehearsal for the later novel.
I ought to add that the edition I read, a Bantam Classics edition from 1989 (though my copy is a 2008 reprint) has an excellent introduction by Vivian Gornick, which addresses Cather's life and ambitions and achievements, and touches on her prairie novels, especially this one and its immediate successor, The Song of the Lark. Gornick ends by comparing her to a couple of near contemporaries: Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf. She concludes by saying "Today Jean Rhys seems dated, Virginia Woolf important, and Willa Cather wise."
My other reviews of Willa Cather: