20th century,  General Fiction

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

A great professor of mine lent me O Pioneers! by Willa Cather a year ago. It is a wonderful edition from the late 80’s: the paper is already old and it has wonderful little annotations that highlight the best lines and excerpts. However, I waited til this year, when I took American history lessons, to read it.


Summary from BD:

‘For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious.’ Willa Cather’s second novel, O Pioneers! (1913) tells the story of Alexandra Bergson and her determination to save her immigrant family’s Nebraska farm. Clear-headed and fiercely independent, Alexandra’s passionate faith in the prairie makes her a wealthy landowner. By placing a strong, self-reliant woman at the centre of her tale, Cather gives the quintessentially American novel of the soil a radical cast. Yet, although influenced by the democratic utopianism of Walt Whitman and the serene regionalism of Sarah Orne Jewett, O Pioneers! is more than merely an elegy for the lost glories of America’s pioneer past. In its rage for order and efficiency, the novel testifies to the cultural politics of the Progressive Era, the period of massive social and economic transformations that helped to modernize the United States in the years between the Civil War and World War.

It was a little bit difficult to get into the story at first, because unless you live in the tiniest village in a Western state, you don’t feel identified with the environment. You feel awkward. But as you keep reading, characters become more and more interesting and eventually you become familiar with them. The main character is Alexandra (who I secretly called Alex) and her family and how she has to fight social conventions of the myth of the frontier: it is a male and lonely place. But, from an early age she is convinced that life in the frontier is also hers, it is her story and her history, and she wants to take charge of it. She is also a visionary in times of economic crisis and survives the hard conditions in the West.

A little history is needed to let yourself be caught into the plot though. I needed to be familiar with The Homestead Act to understand why those people were living and fighting like that, instead of living in the Eastern coast, where everything seemed easier. But, once you discover that the American government was giving huge homesteads in the West to those who managed to survive for more than 5 years, you understand. There was a light at the end of the tunnel for all those immigrants, like Alexandra herself who moved from Sweden, in search for a better life.

To sum up, I liked reading the novel, but more for historical reasons than for mere pleasure. The novel is divided into chapters and it is easy to read, there are no complex structures and, although there are words in Swedish, it only helps to highlight how awkward a Swedish girl must have felt in the middle of the West. But, there is a little conservative ideology behind the writing and there is obviously a climax, but the pace of the narration did not seem the ideal one for me.

I edit this post to celebrate that it’s my 100th post. I made it!!!



  • Risa

    Ooo! Nice review, Elena! I’d never heard of Cather until a few months ago, and when realised she was part of American writing history, I decided to give O Pioneers! a go. I haven’t managed to get myself a copy of it yet, but your remarks on the novel might be helpful when I do manage to give it a try. I should look up the Homestead Act and get familiar with it… 😀

    • Elena

      Thanks Risa, I’m so happy to have you back! Still got to update your information on your new website 🙂

      Don’t worry too much abou the Homestead Act, all you have to know is that if those people managed to survive 5 years in the land the government gave them, it was all theirs. Obviously, this sounds too easy for us, but the West was difficult to survive in (you’ll realize why when you read the novel).

      • Risa

        I’m still working on polishing up the new blog, but I think, for the most part, it’s running already. 🙂

        I see… I can understand since I’ve watched a few movies that have been based on the hardships of the people of the West. If I’m not wrong, there’s a Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman movie that is set in this background. I recall how it ends, with all these people racing to grab at flags that mark plots of unworked land. Those people had to be emotionally and mentally strong to survive that way!

  • amanda

    You know, that’s a good point about the history. Although I’ve never been out west, I read all the Little House on the Prairie books as a child and American history was a given in school, so I never blinked when I read this. This history was just something I knew; the settings felt familiar.
    It can be fun, though, to use fiction to learn more both about our own and others’ history. (I didn’t know, for example, that the Philippines had fought a war for independence from the US prior to WWII. Although I can’t say I was surprised when I learned it from a novel!)

    • Elena

      I was familiar with the setting but not too much. I never read the Little House on the Prairie books and I lacked historical knowledge regarding the West. Now, however, I’d love to come back to the topic and the myth of the frontier to learn more about it.

      Isn’t it wonderful that books can make us more familiar with completely alien situations and settings? 🙂

      • Risa

        Only recently my mom and I were discussing how most of what we know comes from the extensive reading we do. So many times my husband is surprised at certain things I know especially since I never read the papers! I keep telling him “I read it in some novel or the other.” I love the look he gets on his face after that!! 😀

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