Thursday, January 31, 2008

Quick notes on Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

Willa Cather’s first novel, O Pioneers! is full of priceless gems. Cather displays a remarkable ability for direct, concise sketches that last only a few lines but tell us volumes about her characters. She shows the same skill in her descriptions of the natural world of late nineteenth century Nebraska, where she grew up. Cather belonged to a community of Swedish immigrants who struggled to farm and eke out a living in the seemingly stark, unforgiving prairie. The experience informs many of her stories and novels.

O Pioneers!, too, is set in Nebraska, and tells the story of the determined, intelligent, hard-working and fair Alexandra Bergson, who defies all odds and prejudices of her time to establish a successful farm business. We learn about Alexandra's personality from the moment Cather introduces her on the second page:
“[Alexandra] was a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man’s long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round, plush cap, tied down with a thick veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face, and her clear deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance, without seeming to see anything…”
That resoluteness, that confidence in Alexandra is her hallmark and it stays throughout the novel. Alexandra is the inspiring heart and soul of the book.
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I won't formally review O Pioneers! Instead, I shall give an example – one among many – of how Cather’s prose moved me.

Marie is Alexandra’s neighbor. She is a beautiful and young. When she was only sixteen, she fell for a handsome young man and married him. She later finds him to be dour and jealous but is resigned to her fate. As her affection for her husband fades, Marie realizes that she is in love with Emil, Alexandra’s brother, whom she has known and played with as a child. Emil loves Marie too. They meet whenever they can, and chat excitedly as childhood friends will. But both are slowly becoming aware that the playfulness and joy of each others’ company has suddenly in adolescence transformed itself into a different kind of longing. It is a longing they cannot pursue for it brings only pain.

Frustrated, Emil leaves to Mexico City to work. He writes regularly to Alexandra from there; and Alexandra always shares these letters with Marie. What does Marie feel about these letters? Cather tells us in this poignant piece of prose:
Marie knew perfectly well that Emil’s letters were written more for her than for Alexandra. They were not the sort of letters that a young man writes to his sister. They were both more personal and more painstaking: full of descriptions of the gay life in the old Mexican capital in the days when the strong hand of Porfirio Diaz was still strong. He told about bull-fights and cock-fights, churches and fiestas, the flower-markets and the fountains, the music and dancing, the people of all nations he met in the Italian restaurants on San Francisco Street. In short, they were the kind of letters a young man writes to a woman when he wishes himself and his life to seem interesting to her, when he wishes to enlist her imagination on her behalf.
So true! Great literature is full of these moments: moments that we have known and experienced in our lives, but have never been able articulate successfully. And when someone expresses it beautifully, as Cather does above, we feel a intimate connection with the characters; we feel it is a marvel that someone from a different time and place could share the exact same subtlety.

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And finally, to end, here are some great quotes from the novel:

1. “Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.”

2. “A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than things themselves.”

3. “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

4. “There is a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon.”

5. “There are only two or tree human stories and they go on repeating themselves as if they had never happened before; like larks in this country they have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.”

The Willa Cather picture, taken in 1936, is from here. Here's a link to my post about the landscape of the Great Plains. And here's a post on Willa Cather from The Middle Stage.

1 comment:

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