2015: O Pioneers!

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

O Pioneers! Willa Cather

I am a late in life convert to Willa Cather, having read My Antonia in high school and hated it (though I am willing now to admit I might have been wrong).  But I read Death Comes for the Archbishop and loved it, and I have to admit, though it is far from perfect, I also really enjoyed O Pioneers! (love that exclamation point). 

Let’s just start with what doesn’t work about this book - the plot.  Which is to say, I could figure out every single character beat from, like, page 2. So if you read for breathtaking action and plot, you will not enjoy this book.  But honestly, plot isn’t really what Cather is about, in my experience (though I used to read like that, which is probably why I hated My Antonia all those years ago).  This isn’t to say that things don’t happen in the book - things do happen.  But they happen like they were foreordained, and you won’t be surprised by them.  They seem inevitable. Which means it’s a bit cliched - but it’s also the point.

What the book is about is the prairie - a farm in Nebraska that was cultivated by Alexandra Bergen after her father died, and made into a success because of who she is - a woman of strong will and big heart, who gives that heart to her land and to the farm.  And Alexandra is an amazing character - an immovable force, but also a naive thing in some ways.  And all the other characters - her two scoundrelly brothers, her younger sensitive brother, her lovely and flirtatious young neighbor Marie, all come to life on the page.  I’ve never lived in a 19th century prairie town, but I felt that this was what one was like, and these were the real people who lived there.  The prose is very simple, but deliberately so, and in the short plain sentences Cather sketches out a world that no longer exists, but once did. And it’s really beautiful.

And she has such sympathy for her characters - even the bad ones, which is such a lovely thing. AND, I know I said this in my Archbishop review, but I also really appreciated that her Catholic characters are just characters - not the Popish other, or what have you — the casual Anti-Catholic bigotry of American novels can get old.  I don’t read a lot of lit-er-ature these days (as you can see, it’s mostly thrillers and non-fiction), but I enjoyed this so (and it’s an easy breezy read - I myself read it on one flight from West Palm Beach to Boston), I might make a shift in my habits.  And I will definitely read more Cather. An under appreciated writer, I think.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017