10 November 2006

O Pioneers!

I bought this book, along with Goodnight, Nebraska, earlier this year when I was planning a long trip to Nebraska and wanted some background reading. That trip—the Nebraska Hedonism Tour, which was to begin with an old friend's wedding and included stops at nearly all of the state's dozen wineries and which I was greatly looking forward to—fell through when the trip I'm currently on came up. Consequently O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather, languished on my bookshelf for a while. It being a bit of Classic American Literature such as you might read in high school, it might have languished there for a long time (high school literature and I have had a bad relationship ever since Mrs. Foust's interpretation of Silas Marner), so before I left home I placed it among a pile of books to have my folks send me out here when I ran out of other reading material.

I've never read Willa Cather before. She was apparently quite the interesting character in her own right. O Pioneers! follows, in bits and pieces, the life of Alexandra Bergson of Nebraska and her family, of how the high plains were tamed by the hand of man and the plow. Actually, in this case, it's the hand of woman that does much of the work. Cather's Alexandra is a strong-willed woman who makes her way by her own wits. She may not get her hands dirty with the farm work, but she is one of the first large-farm managers in history and in an era when women weren't expected to manage anything and even their rights to property were suspect. Parts of the critical commentary that lead off the book—as it must lead off all "classic" literature as if readers cared what some literary critic has to say about a book who's value is adequately proved by its staying power—describe it as one of the first important pieces of feminist literature, as if somehow O Pioneers! is less about the strength of ingenuity, the American spirit, the truth that all individuals have power and worth, and instead is some sort of proto-chick lit, Bridget Jones on the High Plains.

But I digress. Had I read O Pioneers! in high school I might have hated it, because it is somewhat slow. Cather's narrative jumps years at a time, sixteen years at one point, and glosses over the most interesting bits, the specifics of how Alexandra and her wit and her brothers and their work managed to make something out of the harsh terrain of the Nebraska plains: one chapter ends with Alexandra convincing her brothers to go along with her scheme, and the next begins with the statement that the scheme has worked brilliantly.

Of course I may be interested in how they got from A to B, but Cather knows better that the story doesn't hang on how exactly the transition occurred, only that it did, and how it affected the characters and the country and the people around them. This doesn't mean the narrative is fast paced. But the book is short and it moves along, the characters are well-drawn if always somehow a bit distant, and the writing is not heavy or difficult (the book was written in 1913). I read the whole book in about four days without spending undue time doing so.

The editor's occasional footnotes and endnotes can be annoying, and seem entirely random. One page has four footnotes, elaborating on the local flora Mrs. Cather names without description. Another page has more local flora treated in the same way by the author, but without the footnotes, as if the editor though we poor readers would be flailing about wondering what a snow-lily was but wouldn't be bothered by the mysterious marsh-trumpet. None of the footnotes add a thing to the story and their inconsistency is more annoying than anything. When possible, it's best to find copies of classic literature that are simply presented as they are and not beaten into submission by editors and critics; this is not always possible when purchasing books online, which is why bookstores are still so much more fun.

Ultimately the book brought to mind the truth that we have no more real frontiers in America, and that being in such control of the land as we are we as a people tend to forget what it took to get us to where we are. Alexandra Bergson's America was not a global Colossus bestriding the seven seas, and the simple questions of existence, of food and shelter and survival, were much more in her mind and the minds of her fellow Americans than they are in ours today; reading the book reminds us of that. For that reason if for no other O Pioneers! deserves a wider audience.


Lucky Bob said...

See now I liked Silas Marner, even when we read it in school. Maybe my teacher covered it in a better fashion. I recommend watching "A Simple Twist of Fate" written and staring Steve Martin for a fairly decent movie version.

Anonymous said...

I was a Cather fiend in high school -- and for the different version of America rather than anything feminist. I didn't even realize her role in literature as a whole until after I cooled on my reading binge. I think I own something like 8 books by her. I read My Antonia for school and went from there. I liked O Pioneers!, but I'd say My Antonia was my favorite, followed by Song of the Lark, which would probably be too girly for you. I've always had a soft spot for Midwestern lit, though. Richard Powers, who I'm reading now, is from Champain-Urbana, Illinois, and all of his books are based in the Midwest. The Echo Maker is, in fact, Nebraska, around the Platte River.