Wednesday, October 26, 2011

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

How can you not love a classic book that has an exclamation mark in the title?

This is my fourth stop in my personal challenge to read Willa Cather's works chronologically.  Not only that, but O Pioneers! was the first title of hers that I read, and is my first re-read.  Somewhat of a milestone, I'd say.  If this one failed to impress, I'd be rethinking my challenge.  I was able to appreciate it much deeper this time around, which has me looking forward to my next re-reads.

In her previously published works, Willa Cather experiments with her fascination for the bond between people and land, with what drives a person, and how they make difficult choices.  In O Pioneers! she really lets the land (and the power it has on people) shine.  She has a way of simplicity in her words that speaks volumes; the way she talks of the land is just as she would speak of any human character.
There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country.  It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back.  Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little to meet the sun.  The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other.
O Pioneers! feels like a coming-of-age story, but the main character is an untamed land.  It spans those years when immigrants became Americans, when the West became the Heartland.  It also follows Alexandra Bergson's life, as she struggles to take her father's land from the wild, and wrest from it a better future for her younger brother. Sadly, Alexandra is a strong, intelligent woman living in a time when it was much more acceptable to be a subservient, simple woman.  Because of this, much of her life is spent somewhat alone.
Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.
Unless the idea of getting into the minds of those immigrants: the Swedish, the French, the Bohemian, is distasteful to you, then I believe you are in for a wonderful experience with O Pioneers!  The generalizations of the different nationalities, and how they responded to the land and the other new neighbors, felt unique yet somehow so familiar and comforting.  The writing is simple, yet there are many though-provoking layers.  How we need hope in order to live.  How love is not so simple.  How physical strength or vivacity are not the answer they sometimes seem to be.  How our own selves are often more of a hindrance to our futures than any other obstacle.  How the grass is not always greener.
Frank knew well enough that if he could once give up this grudge, his wife would come back to him. But he could never in the world do that. The grudge was fundamental.

(Side note: In classic Wikipedia form, the page for this book states that it is #83 on the ALA list of banned/challenged books, which is simply not true. It is #83 on Radcliffe's Rival 100 Best Novels List, which the ALA cites. And kids wonder why you can't cite Wikipedia in research papers.)

As a recap:
1st was April Twilights, a collection of poetry
2nd was The Troll Garden and Others, a collection of short stories
3rd was Alexander's Bridge, a novel[la]

Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Pages: 144
Published: Vintage (orig. 1913)
Read for: my personal Willa Cather Chronologically challenge
My rating: 5 stars


  1. Willa Cather is my mom's favorite author. She was appalled that I hadn't read any of her books so this past summer mom of course gave me copies of her 5 favorites. One of Ours is up next on my TBR list, but I just may read O Pioneers. Thanks for the review.

  2. I hope that you enjoy her--I find her so easy to love. I haven't read One of Ours yet, but I'm looking forward to it!

  3. O Pioneers! is my favorite Cather novel so far. Two of my three daughters loved it, too... and one of them hardly reads at all! I have at least three more of her novels waiting on the shelf. I think Death Comes for the Archbishop will be next. She's written some wonderful short stories, too.

  4. JoAnn, I've enjoyed the short stories of hers that I've read. I'll be rereading Song of the Lark next in my Willa Cather journey, right now I'd have to say that those two are tied for my favorite...we'll see if my re-read changes that!

  5. I love everything I've read by Cather. This one was great, but the one I'm most keen to re-read is The Professor's House. Probably because it was my first-ever Cather. :)

  6. Andi, I've loved everything of hers too. I've wondered if part of the reason O Pioneers! is such a favorite of mine is because it was the first of hers I read...very well may be! I look forward to reading The Professor's House.

  7. One of Ours was perhaps my favorite Cather book - to me much more vivid and gritty. It seemed to take me by suprise as I felt there was a distinct departure from her other stories. Enjoy!

  8. "The dawn in the east looked like the light from some great fire that was burning under the edge of the world. The color was reflected in the globules of dew that sheathed the short gray pasture grass." - O Pioneers.

    Perhaps the most beautiful description of a morning that I have read.

  9. Death Comes For the Archbishop - an amazing novel- one of my all time Cather favorites along with My Antonia-

  10. teriv, very interesting! It will be fun to read something by a favorite author that is different from her other works.

    Kesava, she does have a way of capturing the wonder and beauty of nature, doesn't she? I'm inspired by nature, so I suppose it's only natural that Willa Cather's works speak to me.

    Anon., I like that everyone seems to have a different favorite Cather novel. I think it speaks to the quality of writing and insight.


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