O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

There must be people who don’t like Cather’s style of writing, but I haven’t met them yet. She manages to be lyrical without being wordy. This book was her first novel and is still one of the most popular, along with My Antonía and Death Comes for the Archbishop.

O Pioneers! (the title is from a Walt Whitman poem) can be seen as a feminist novel since the main character, Alexandra,  is a strong woman who must keep her family together and run the family homestead in Nebraska through some very hard times after the death of her father. She is successful in this, but isn’t as smart about people and feelings as she is about crops and cattle.

The novel could also be seen as historical fiction since it describes realistically the way of life for these strong and stubborn people who settled the Great Plains. We see the choices they must make, and the isolation they must withstand, and how this affects them, sometimes in dangerous ways. And we see how good things happen, and tragic things happen, but the land is always there.

This could also be seen as a romance since there are two important romantic relationships. One is a midlife romance for Alexandra that is founded on friendship, not passion. The other is the opposite—a forbidden love between Alexandra’s beloved younger brother and a young married woman who is Alexandra’s good friend.

This is a lot for a book that runs just over 150 pages, but Cather’s economical writing style never leaves you feeling rushed. Instead, Cather soothes you with her beautiful descriptions of nature throughout the book. Here’s one of my favorites:

“When he reached the orchard the sun was hanging low over the wheatfield. Long fingers of light reached through the apple branches as through a net; the orchard was riddled and shot with gold; light was the reality, the trees were merely interferences that reflected and refracted light.”

There is tragedy in O Pioneers! and there is hope and the belief that the land and its people will endure.

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2 Responses to “O Pioneers! by Willa Cather”

  1. Sharon S. Says:

    I absolutely love this book, and you described it with a lyrical economy that is reminiscent of Cather’s own. I love the way you looked at the book from the point of view of different genres, which helps to show how multi-layered a story it is. Thanks for this wonderful review!

  2. Wake County Public Libraries Readers Services Staff Says:

    Thanks so much, Sharon, for your very nice review of my review!
    –Sue S.

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