Some writers are identified with a particular country or region, others with a specific period in history. Willa Cather is known for both. When I think of her, I think of the prairie states, especially Nebraska, and I think of the days of the intrepid pioneers of the prairies, struggling to make a life for themselves that was tenuous, at best.
Although Cather spent only a few years of her childhood on the vast prairie lands of Nebraska, she returned to those memories again and again in her most powerful and famous fiction, such as My Antonia and The Song of the Lark.
The title of one of her celebrated novels, O Pioneers! is rather unique in that it has an exclamation point at the end of it. Think about it: how many other book titles do you know that have exclamation points? That sense of breathlessness, excitement, and fierce determination which is conveyed in the very look of the title O Pioneers! comes across from the very first pages of this novel.
This is the story of Alexandra Bergson and her family who risk everything they have to carve out a home in the unforgiving Nebraska landscape. Alexandra is forced at a very young age to take on the responsibility for her mother and brothers after her father dies. Before he dies, her father makes Alexandra, his most trusted child, promise to keep the farm and to make it thrive. This she does, although at a high personal cost.
The novel is a short one and moves quickly from decade to decade. It begins with a touching scene involving Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, whose stray kitten is rescued by Alexandra’s best friend, Carl. The moment is a sweet one, and all ends well; but this is perhaps the only time in the book that we see problems so easily and satisfactorily resolved.
The land is harsh and brings out both the best and the worst in people. Those with weak wills and weak values often stumble and are sometimes destroyed. The Nebraska prairie is not a place where love and gentle dreams can flourish without interference; young people particularly often find their fondest dreams tossed aside the way the blade of a plow uproots the tender prairie grasses.
There is heartbreak and loneliness in O Pioneers!,but there are also moments of pure exhilaration and veneration for the savage beauty of the land. Alexandra suffers as she tries to keep her vision of what the land can mean for her and her family. Like many of the women in the novels of Willa Cather, Alexandra rises above the ordinary, and continues with dogged determination along the path she has set for herself. The price she pays is high, but we know it is not too high, despite what has been lost. And, appropriately, the last sentence in O Pioneers! ends with this exclamatory sentence:“Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!”