Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One of Ours by Willa Cather

Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.

Willa Cather's novels are my definition of literary comfort food.  Having been a while since I'd read one of her novels for the first time, (the last few have been rereads,) I'd forgotten what a wonderful experience it is.  True to form, the characters and setting were vivid and the writing easy to appreciate.  In each book of Cather's that I've read, she uses character sketches as a tool to help the reader get a wonderful sense of the nuances in each personality.  She's so adept at this that it never gets old.  In just a few sentences, we learn an incredible amount about four different people.

Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him.  He had been unable to conceal his discontent.  Mr. Wheeler was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people.  Mrs. Wheeler thought the trouble with her son was that he had not yet found his Saviour.  Bayliss was convinced that his brother was a moral rebel, that behind his reticence and his guarded manner he concealed the most dangerous opinions.

If there is such a thing as a peaceful book about war, One of Ours is it exactly.  Published in 1922, only a few years after the Great War ended, this book seems to put the senseless loss into perspective in some ways.  The story follows the life of Claude, an idealistic young man, and shows how he found purpose in his life.  In a time when so many things were changing, (the book also addresses Prohibition, woman's role in society, transportation, and the Spanish Influenza to name a few,) such a massive loss of youth must have been impossible to understand.  Claude's story seeks to bring healing and soothe the heart.  It isn't a perfect novel—it's a bit too sentimental for that—but it's easy for me to see why it won the Pulitzer when it did.

She told off on her fingers the many ingredients, but he believed there were things she did not name: the fragrance of old friendships, the glow of early memories, belief in wonder-working rhymes and songs.  Surely these were fine things to put into little cakes!

Coincidentally, I picked this book up with perfect timing.  I'd just finished reading about Prohibition, and was longing for some prose about WWI, so it was a perfect tie-in.  This was the 5th book of Willa Cather's that I've read this year—marking completion of my 2012 goal in that regard—but I certainly haven't tired of her yet.  I've now read the first 8 of her 19 published works, and I'm greatly looking forward to the stories to come.

12 comments:

  1. Wow, this one sounds beautiful.

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    1. I really enjoyed it - couldn't put it down, actually. I think I was expecting to be disappointed, since I hadn't heard of it, but it was a very nice surprise.

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  2. I've read one Cather (My Antonia) and have O Pioneers on my classics club list. I liked My Antonia but feel it's too early for me to judge whether Cather will be a beloved author for me or not. I had never heard of this one before your review, but it sounds lovely. I'm looking forward to more of your reviews as you work through the other 11 published works :)

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    1. In my opinion, My Antonia isn't her best. It was somewhat disjointed and had a rather vague narrator which made it hard to be invested...so I'm not sure how it became the most famous. I did like O Pionners quite a bit, and I've heard that some of her later stories are really good also.

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  3. I'm afraid that I don't even know this title--OR that she wrote so many works. This sounds really good, and I'm quite drawn to the part you excerpted. Thanks for the review.

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    1. That's what's funny to me - this is her Pulitzer Prize winning book, but you never hear about it...I had no clue what it was about, (although after I read the synopsis, with WWI and everything, the title made more sense,) and only knew it existed after researching Cather's books and perusing the Pulitzer list.

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  4. I've actually never read any Cather before, but those quotes alone make me want to pick up this book.

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    1. They're some good ones, aren't they? She has a way of distilling people to their essence - and by doing so, instead of making characters seem flat, they seem so much more real. I hope you do get a chance to pick it up at some point!

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  5. This sounds like a great Cather book! I read "O Pioneers!" last year and despite the tough setting, I fell in love with the characters. I think it is impossible not to like Alexandra. I'll add this one to my 20th century TBR list.

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    1. I know that Cather is known for her settings, but I think that her real strength is in her portrayal of characters. Like in O Pioneers - you see the land through Alexandra's eyes, it is part of her. I loved O Pioneers (and Alexandra) too. Hope you enjoy this one when you get around to it!

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  6. I have this feeling that the more Cather I read, the more I will love. This novel sounds right up my alley! Thank you! - Sarah

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    1. She's definitely grown on me. She's accessible but thoughtful. I haven't gotten tired of her yet. :)

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