Sparrow's Reviews > O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
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's review
Jun 16, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, classic-or-cannonical, romantic, reviewed, under-read-gems, girls-rule
Recommended to Sparrow by: sadly, I think no one did
Recommended for: everyone
Read from June 05 to 10, 2010 , read count: 2

Alexandra looked at him mournfully. “I try to be more liberal about such things than I used to be. I try to realize that we are not all made alike.”

Everything in O Pioneers! is beauty to me. I am so in love with this book. Maybe it is because I have it in my brain that pioneers by definition suck that Willa Cather always catches me by surprise and turns me upside down. It’s like walking through an alien landscape and then running into my best friend. I thought what I would find was Michael Landon crying into a butter churn, and here you are, everything that is wonderful about humans. Still, I never know whether to recommend that other people read this book, or whether it is better to just keep it to myself. As Alexandra says, we are not all made alike, and maybe what is beauty and revelation to me is Michael Landon crying into a butter churn to you.

It’s so easy to say why I hate writing and difficult to say why I love it. I want to compare Cather to Hemingway because of how steady and careful their writing is, because of how speculation about their lives cheapens conversations about their stories, but no. I want to say Cather writes what is in my soul, but that’s not right either. What she writes is as much her own world as it is my reality, but that doesn’t make her wisdom easy or her power arrogant. She is not looking for my approval, but she is looking outside herself for some kind of truth.

At a particularly conflicted time in my life, I went to a club with some friends and I saw a girl dancing like I have never seen anyone dance in my life. She had cleared out as space for herself to the side of the stage, and it was like every part of her body was electric. It was not only beautiful, it was also full of life. Where I didn’t know which way to turn, this girl was in the Place, doing the Thing. Reading O Pioneers! is like watching that girl. Everything is alive in this book.

But, again, I’m struck by the feeling that it may not be alive to you as it is to me. I’ll give you a few descriptions as objectively as I can, and you can judge for yourself. It is about contrasts: country and city, speed and slowness, youth and age, passion and steadiness, inspiration and hard work, deprivation and entitlement. It is operatic. It is kooky at times and kind, but not funny. It is understated and even-handed. It is written by a woman. It is about women and men, who are all sometimes as passionate as people are, and other times as wise as people should be. It is specific, but not petty. There are awkward parts (specifically book 2, chapter 9, though I even think that scene is beautiful).

It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling it, and I think a spoiler would really spoil the story. So, I’ll just say one last thing that I hope won’t be a spoiler, but might, so be warned. People get angry with authors who won’t let their characters die and see it as a sign of accomplished writing to kill a character. I think, because of that, I see a lot of bad storytelling mistaken for good storytelling if the author tortures or kills the characters. I really hate when people think character abuse is maturity. At the same time, though, I think there is something right about trusting an author more if the author allows unhappiness into the story. Authors are writing to an audience, and I think they should be writing to entertain, so there is value to me in making stories better than life. At the same time, there is truth in sadness, and if a writer can’t look at sadness, she has sacrificed truth to entertainment. Cather balances truth and entertainment in a way that is completely devastating. She loves her characters, and lets every one of them grow as humans grow, with human joys and human tragedies. It is painful and beautiful to watch.

I almost want to read this book again right away, but too much wisdom in one month can’t be good for my health. I’ll take a little break first and watch some reality TV to balance out my wisdom intake. Just, you know, for my health.
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Reading Progress

06/05 page 3
1.7% "Is it possible for me to love this book more? I don't think so." 6 comments
06/09 page 81
46.02% ""To hump" apparently used to have a very different meaning than it does today." 6 comments
05/21 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I adore this book. I adore this woman. Her sentences are the cleanest in the history of American fiction.

Sparrow I think, to say I adore her is an understatement. I'm struggling over a review because, "I'm not worthy!" seems insufficient. Instead, I'll use a ton of words to prove how unworthy I am. Take that, doubters!

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

We're all unworthy, and in that, we're worth something to each other. In other news, of course I love MY ANTONIA, too, as well as A LOST LADY and THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE.

Sparrow So true. I love love love My Antonia and The Professor's House. I haven't read A Lost Lady yet because the last two I read were The Song of the Lark and One of Ours, and The Song wasn't that great, imo, and One of Ours was SOOOO SAAAAD. I think it's as sad as O Pioneers. So, I had to take a break. Song of the Lark actually made me a little worried about how to choose others to read. I know I'll read them all eventually, but I didn't want to read a lot of the worst ones in a row. I'll make A Lost Lady my next Cather if you like it.

I was saying to Elizabeth and Moira, The Professor's House reminds me of the JD Salinger Glass family stories in a lot of ways. That sense of mourning over a lost golden child. I've never read the two in a row, so maybe they're totally dissimilar, but Professor's House made me think of that when I read it.

message 5: by Buck (new)

Buck Oh, Meredith. You don't need to use a ton of words to convince me you're unworthy. :)

(Emoticons make everything okay. It's a rule.)

Sparrow Uh, thank you? That's true, emoticons are like saying, "With all due respect." You can say whatever you want after that.

message 7: by Caris (new)

Caris The tears give the butter a distinct flavor and enhance spreadability.

Sparrow They're also an organic preservative, or so I hear.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I can't even describe how much I hate Michael Landon, butter or no, although it's possible I might hate him more as an angel, because that sucks. And I can't really remember Little House - the books - anymore, but I do remember having this lingering impression of what a total failure Pa was - dragging his family west, kind of sucking at farming, playing the violin. Bah.

I'm kind of embarrassed to say I've only read Cather's shirt fiction- I think this may be the story of my life - and I'm glad I can have a you to recommend this, so that my "recommended by" won't be blank.

message 10: by Sparrow (last edited Jun 16, 2010 09:21AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sparrow Yay! Yes! I recommend it. And this one is actually really short. I think O Pioneers! is more about the plot and My Antonia is more about the writing. They say she was really influenced by Henry James, whom we all know I loathe. And even though I don't really get why she would have liked him, her sentences actually being about something, you can see the influence in how she usually focuses on description, not plot. Anyway, O Pioneers! is more like a play in following the traditional plot structure, I think. Less sprawling.

Have you read Coming, Aphrodite!? That's one of my favorite short stories of all time.

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

I don't think so - it was all so long ago, and that reading period blurs.

Sparrow Elizabeth wrote: "And, it's really nice to know, I'm not alone - I thought the Little House on the Prairie show was just awful. Awful."

I know. I think I'm allergic to Michael Landon. I have a friend who's watching all of the Little Houses and mentions it every once in a while on facebook. It just turns my stomach. I think that show is the reason one in four Americans has diabetes. In all honesty, I don't think I've ever seen a full episode because even as a kid it was really off-putting to me.

Ceridwen wrote: "I don't think so - it was all so long ago, and that reading period blurs."

One of the things I like about her is that she writes about women working, but not like, "Woe is me! I could have babies . . . OR I could work! But because I've learned these valuable life lessons, I will sacrifice my selfish desire to work for the greater good of humanity!" She writes about women working with no big debate about a choice to work BECAUSE WOMEN HAVE TO WORK, TOO, goddammit! IF ONLY we were all sitting around like, "Weeelll, I could eat grapes all day, or I could take a man's job. Hmmm, what to do?" Sorry, rant. But with Cather, the question is never whether to work, it's always how to work best and how to work with passion and practicality. The Coming, Aphrodite! story is about two artists, a man and a woman, who have different ideas about what art should be. I love it.

message 13: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Crooks "At the same time, there is truth in sadness, and if a writer can’t look at sadness, she has sacrificed truth to entertainment." - so true... one reason so many American films have lost their flavor.

Sparrow Rachel - It's true. And, you know, I don't need wisdom to be everywhere. That would be a drag. But it's really nice to find it some places.

Elizabeth - I am SO SICK of people talking about it like it's this choice that women arbitrarily make. And I think Cather doesn't ignore how it can marginalize women and define them in terms of class, but she doesn't make it a focus.

Sparrow For sure. And I can't really get mad at anyone in particular about it (well, actually, there are a couple of people I'm mad at in particular, reasonable or not) because if that's someone's experience, then okay. And I get why women who have to work wouldn't be out telling their stories all the time - they're working. Still, sometimes the things that are not an issue with wonderful women writers are as beautiful as the things that are an issue.

Sparrow I know. Writers really should pay more attention to us.

Sparrow I think we're sweet.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Or if you write mysteries. I just never seem to dig those.

Sparrow We're sweet, but reasonable.

Sparrow Yay, Gaudy Night!!!

Sparrow Thanks, Elizabeth!

Sparrow The weirdest part to me is why would anyone think they would get people to buy jeans or pharmaceuticals or whatever by spamming book review threads? Or do you think the point is just to be hostile? I never understand spam.

message 23: by Jean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jean This is a perfect review; I've never read a better one. I agree 100%. Thank you! I wish you were in my book club!

Sparrow Thank you!!

Dolors A fine, very wise review, Sparrow. Thanks for putting into words my mixed feelings about this book so clearly it hurts.

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