“O Pioneers!” by Willa Cather

Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
ISBN: 9780679743620
Pages: 176
Release date: originally 1913; republished December 1, 1992
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5

Spoiler Alert!

Summary

The Bergsons, Swedish immigrants who have settled in Nebraska at the turn of the twentieth century, are determined to survive the wild prairie. Even as many of their friends and neighbors, such as Alexandra’s only friend Carl Linstrum, give up and move away, the Bergsons have become too invested in the rugged land to give up now.

When her father dies, Alexandra Bergson inherits the family farm and becomes the head of the household. Her youngest brother, Emil, is also left to her care. With her sharp business acumen and no-nonsense approach to life, Alexandra becomes very successful and wealthy, and Emil grows up to be a smart, handsome young man.

Alexandra, for all her business smarts, can’t see the love blossoming between Emil and Marie Tovesky, a beautiful young Bohemian girl who now lives at the Linstrums’ old homestead. Marie is married to hotheaded Frank Shabata, who resents their simple, rural life together.

When he realizes his feelings for Marie and the hopelessness of their love triangle, Emil leaves for Mexico. But he can’t forget Marie, so he moves back to Nebraska—much to Alexandra’s delight. Though she has many friendly servants and several other relations, there are few people with whom Alexandra can relate, and even fewer in whom to confide.

Carl Linstrum is one of those few. After leaving the prairie, he becomes an engraver’s apprentice in New York City. But he quickly tires of the city and, on his way to become a gold prospector in Alaska, returns to see Alexandra to resume their friendship.

The relationship between Emil and Marie, and to a lesser extent Carl and Alexandra, comes to a head with violent result. Marie’s husband finds the two “embracing” in his orchard, and kills them both. Alexandra finally loses her cool, and mourns for her little brother and adopted son passionately. She realizes that in this hard life, she needs a companion, so she marries Carl.

Analysis

I came to this book expecting to hear a sermon about the value and merit of forging a hard-working life as a pioneer. While the difficulties of taming the wild land are always present in any book about pioneers, much of this story takes place after Alexandra has already achieved success, so the homage to work ethic that I expected was quite subdued.

But the tale does some heavy moralizing nonetheless. Extramarital affairs are obviously condemned—even if the marriage in peril is very unhealthy for all involved. Emil and Marie understand that their love is sinful and forbidden, and Alexandra does not condemn Frank for his crime because, in a way, the lovers deserved retribution and Frank vengeance.

Marie, as some have pointed out, is a symbol of the wild land around her. She encompasses all of the temperamental beauty, the exigent passion, the far-off and forbidden dreams of success in face of the hardship pioneers face. Emil’s attraction to her parallels other stories of immigrants wanting to make their mark (and livelihoods) on an impossibly wild and beautiful land.

Alexandra’s love life is confusing at best. Though she never shows much interest in members of the opposite sex—to the point that I assumed she was gay or asexual—by the end she marries a childhood friend who has been far less successful in life, simply because life seems too hard alone. The point seems clear: no matter how intelligent a woman is or how hard she works, she needs a man in order to be complete.

Carl is a flat, lusterless character; quiet, artistic, and sensitive, he is the opposite of Alexandra. He confesses to her:

“I waste a lot of time pretending to people, and the joke of it is, I don’t think I ever deceive any one. There are too many of my kind; people know us on sight.”

He feels out of place on the hardscrabble prairie, but even more out of place in the bustling city. His only recourse is to settle beneath Alexandra’s wings.

I can see why this little book is not as widely read as My Ántonia. But I’m a sucker for a halfway decent pioneer story, so I enjoyed it.

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