O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! is a beautiful novel with a cast of unforgettable characters who seem to move and breathe and have a life of their own.  The novel is written in very economical and poetic prose; scarcely a word seems unnecessary or out of place.  As a backdrop to this moving tale, there is always the landscape of the Nebraska plains, vividly described in every mood and weather, a land so challenging and compelling that people give their very lives for it.

John Bergson’s dying words to his sixteen-year-old daughter, Alexandra, are “Keep the land.”  Recognizing in her, his oldest child, both the will and the intelligence to keep the family together and farm the homestead, he commissions her to oversee this difficult task instead of her brothers.  This book is the story of Alexandra’s efforts and how they succeeded—or failed.  She is a person of remarkable calmness and strength, the still center around which the other characters move—her three brothers, her neighbors, her servants.  If she is guilty of hubris, we want to forgive her; so much has fallen on her young shoulders so early in life.

What greatly complicates her task of “keeping the land” is that not all her family thinks it can, or even should, be done.  Lou and Oscar, the oldest of her brothers, look askance at her far-fetched schemes.  Alexandra puts her hope in her youngest brother, Emil, who becomes the beneficiary of the success and prosperity she at long last achieves.

For all her virtues, Alexandra has the tendency to see all those around her as fellow taskmasters, almost tools, committed to making a living from the land.  So much of her energy and attention goes into this task that she does not see the tragedy taking shape before her.  Cather uses third person narration, allowing us to see the thoughts which each character hides from the others.  Even so, the painful denouement almost took my breath away; I did not see the tragedy coming until it was upon them.  Yet, in hindsight, it all makes sense.

After the devastation, Alexandra is left to make of her life what she can, and here again she rises to admirable heights.  She becomes a fuller and wiser person, less sure of herself and more humble.

The various meanings of “keeping the land” resonate throughout the novel.  As Emil reflects, in spite of all we do, some things grow and some do not:  “It was like that when Alexandra tested her seed corn in the spring . . . From two ears that had grown side by side, the grains of one shot up joyfully into the light, projecting themselves into the future, and the grains from the other lay still in the earth and rotted; and nobody knew why.”  Some survive the test and some do not, and pondering the “why” of it all is what makes this novel so haunting and so unforgettable.

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