January 24, 2014 by PatLeach
Over the holidays, I took home the scholarly edition of "O Pioneers!" published by the University of Nebraska Press. I just got to it, and experienced one of my favorite things--starting and finishing a novel over one weekend.
Originally published in 1913, "O Pioneers!" centers on Alexandra Bergson, who comes to the great plains of Nebraska when her family arrives from Sweden to homestead. She becomes a prominent and successful farmer in her own right, persuading her brothers to stay with the land in very hard times, eventually enjoying the fruits of their courage and persistence. Although the land itself counts as a restless character, the small circle of people in Alexandra's orbit creates a whirl of drama. Her college-educated younger brother falls in love with a married woman in the neighborhood. Alexandra's rekindled friendship with a childhood playmate troubles her stolid older brothers. Tragedy happens.
Two things in particular struck me in this reading. One is Cather's attention to shaping the various characters, especially the immigrant farmers and families, in ways that confer respect. Second is her use of straightforward language, the voice of a well-spoken and thoughtful narrator, as if one who grew up feeling some affection for all of these people, is telling the story.
Although my own homesteading ancestors grew up in the United States, I feel an automatic kinship with the pioneer story. I can't read this book without that background hovering. I'm curious how others experience it.
On another personal note, the late Susan J. Rosowski was one of the editors of this scholarly edition, along with Charles W. Mignon. I took one course from Professor Rosowski at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and recall her passion for Cather, as well as her kindness to her students. I don't quite remember how my late husband and I happened to attend an event at Rosowki's home when Joan Acocella, a writer for the New Yorker was visiting Nebraska. Acocella's expertise is dance, but she has developed a passion for Willa Cather. On this evening, Acocella made an informal presentation on the course of Cather's reputation over the years, deftly weaving social and political history with literary considerations. Acocella eventually wrote a book on the topic, "Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism." She also wrote a very recent blog piece on the 100th anniversary of "O Pioneers!" (spoiler alert if you haven't read the book), a readable essay that combines literary passion with muscular writing. Read it. And then go read "O Pioneers!"
Tagged in: Willa Cather, "O Pioneers!", fiction, Nebraska,
January 12, 2011 by PatLeach
Today I'm returning a library copy of "One of Ours" by Willa Cather, her novel of Claude Wheeler, the Nebraska farmboy who joins the Army in World War One.
This novel earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. Some observers have noted that the Pulitzer was awarded for this novel when it ought to have been given instead to "O Pioneers!" or "My Antonia," earlier novels with a Nebraska setting.
I chose "One of Ours" because I recently visited the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, a remarkable place. I tend to have a short attention span in museums, but was held intellectual captive by this place for a good four hours. I've also set reading or re-reading books by Nebraska authors as one of my Reading Resolutions for 2011.
I'll try not to give too much away about the novel in terms of its plot. In terms of character, Claude Wheeler suffers from a combination of a desire for a wonderful life, an intellectual life, a gracious life, a life bigger than the Wheeler farm, with an infuriating lack of grace in his own social skills. When he's confused among people, he blushes and becomes angry. His marriage isn't satisfactory. He catches a glimpse of the life he wants when he attends college in Lincoln, but then is caught in his father's snare that returns him to the responsibility of the farm.
In many ways his time in Europe before he actually enters the trenches of the war re-ignites his passion for something bigger. He meets new people and sees how they live. He senses a return to excitement in his life. His troops respond to his leadership.
Cather is such a beloved and well-known Nebraska author that I'm reluctant to criticize her work. I will say that the book seems a little like Claude--a glimpse of something grand that is held back by a lack of grace. Yet I love Claude, as I still love this novel, for that romantic hope for something beyond what seems ordinary and everyday.
Tagged in: Willa Cather, Good Reads, "One of Ours",