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O Pioneers!

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O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather's first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather's heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra's devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

159 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1913

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About the author

Willa Cather

655 books2,120 followers
Wilella Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley (Gore), Virginia, in December 7, 1873.

She grew up in Virginia and Nebraska. She then attended the University of Nebraska, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English.

After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter moving to New York City for the remainder of her life.

Her novels on frontier life brought her to national recognition. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, 'One of Ours' (1922), set during World War I. She travelled widely and often spent summers in New Brunswick, Canada. In later life, she experienced much negative criticism for her conservative politics and became reclusive, burning some of her letters and personal papers, including her last manuscript.

She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author's total accomplishments.

She died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 73 in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,835 reviews
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,116 reviews3,958 followers
April 17, 2020
I was entranced by the Nebraska prairie and a wonderful leading woman, living a century ago: a time and place I have never been, but which leaped from the pages, with simple craftsmanship, to sculpt the landscape of my mind’s eye, as Alexandra transformed both her fields and the lives of those around her.

The final thirteen pages felt written by or about a different person, not the author and protagonist I thought I knew.

Prairie Spring

The novel opens with a poem contrasting the harsh landscape with the power of youth to trigger change, including:

Evening and the flat land…
The toiling horses, the tired men…
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses…
Flashing like a star out of the twilight...

Part I – The Wild Land

At barely twenty, Alexandra Bergson takes over her late father’s land, aided by hard-working but risk-averse brothers Lou and Oscar (aged 17 and 19). She has big plans to try new things, buy more land, employ farmhands, and get little Emil (aged 5) educated.

Alexandra is the leading person, but the landscape is the main character. Everyone in The Divide is an outsider, identified by their heritage (Swedish, French, Bohemian etc), as they strive to survive and conquer the harsh and unfamiliar soil and climate, while battling blizzards, prairie dogs, snakes, cholera, and debt. Many cling to “the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable. But this land was an enigma” and there is the constant fear that “men were too weak to make a mark here”. But Alexandra is a woman.

First impressions are conjured by short plain words: gray, anchored, haphazard, howling wind, frozen, straying, straggled, open plain, impermanence, tough prairie sod.... The simple, but carefully chosen language of landscape reminds me of Kent Haruf’s Colorado high plains (see my reviews of Plainsong and Eventide).

The vast, bleak, and beautiful place, whose capricious moods both give and take life, reminds me of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Iceland (see my reviews HERE).

Part II – Neighboring Fields

Sixteen years later and the writing style is the same, but the landscape is transformed: checker-board fields, white roads at right angles, telephone cables, steel windmills, gaily painted farmhouses (rather than being made of sod), and gilded weather vanes.

“The brown earth, with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it” now “It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back.” Humans have won, Alexandra chief among them. “The land… had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right”.

Freed from the stress of basic survival, pleasure can sometimes be indulged: friendships and marriages formed, children born, the adventure of university. But it’s the tentative relationships that quietly dominate in the shadows, the ones that society can’t condone.

The soil of success can also nourish discord, greed and jealousy.

“People have to snatch happiness when they can… It’s always easier to lose than to find.” The second half is undoubtedly true, but the first half ignores the possible price paid by others.

Part III – Winter Memories

“The season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring.” Just as the frozen ground hides and protects, those mourning loss, absence, and what cannot be feel comfort that deep down, “the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again!”

Part IV – The White Mulberry Tree

“The sun was hanging low over the wheatfield. Long fingers of light reached through the apple branches as though 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’s an idyllic veneer (white mulberries: how succulent, beautiful, and pure - but they’re next to the cherries). However, many of the characters are hurting, longing, trying to suppress things, and there is a sense of possible doom.

“Always the same yearning, the same pulling the chain - until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman.”

Part V – Alexandra

Thirteen pages of betrayal. Betrayal in the story, but I felt betrayed as a reader.

For the first four sections, I was in awe of Alexandra: intelligent, practical, principled, loyal, generous, and determined, but “armoured in calm” and with charm and persuasiveness. Somehow, Cather makes this admirable woman entirely believable and likeable.

Alexandra is never passive (nor even deferential), never aggressive, and not even passive-aggressive - except when a man makes an unwelcome compliment on her hair, to which “she stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness”. She just does the research, takes calculated risks, and firmly but gently demonstrates the best way to do things, getting her way, without pressuring anyone.

She is aspirational for her family, especially Emil and niece Molly, but loves her land more than any possessions. She is conventional enough to attend church regularly, and although “She liked plain things”, she bows to “the general conviction that the more useless and utterly unusable objects were, the greater their virtue as ornament.”. But she fiercely defends the rights of others to live, dress, and think differently, even to the detriment of her own relationships and reputation, most notably by taking in Ivar, a barefoot, Bible-loving, bird-loving, vegetarian, and amateur veterinarian who has visions.

In this final section, everything changes. I try not to judge an old book solely by my own times, but how Alexandra reacts, over several months, to the dramatic end of the previous section, doesn’t fit with how Cather had portrayed her thus far. To get to this ending, Alexandra should have been a different person all along; not radically different, but different.

BIG spoilers

I don't crave happy or even tidy endings. I've read books where I've been stunned in a positive way (Stoner, and Stefansson's Heaven and Hell triptych, and Toibin's Testament of Mary come to mind), and others where I've felt the last few pages unnecessary, and perhaps diluted the force of the main narrative (Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible). But this just jarred. It tainted the preceding sections. What would have been a 5* book only just scrapes 4*.


No plot spoilers; they’re hidden for brevity.

Image of Nebraskan prairie:

The title of this novel is a nod to Walt Whitman’s poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers, published in Leaves of Grass in 1865 (Cather’s novel was published in 1913).
Profile Image for Matt.
917 reviews28.2k followers
March 7, 2021
“Marie stole slowly, flutteringly, along the path, like a white night-moth out of the fields. The years seemed to stretch before her like the land...always the same patient fields, the patient little trees, the patient lives; always the same yearning, the same pulling at the chain - until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman, who might cautiously be released...When she reached the stile she sat down and waited. How terrible it was to love people when you could not really share their lives…”
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

“All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!”

- Walt Whitman, Pioneers! O Pioneers!

Willa Cather's opening description of Nebraska in O Pioneers! is unlikely to find its way into the Cornhusker State's tourism bureau pamphlets. With a sharp particularity that is present throughout the novel, she describes the fictional town of Hanover as near to being blown away by a howling wind. The town itself consists of low drab buildings beneath a gray sky, clinging to a gray prairie. The Nebraska of O Pioneers! is hard, unforgiving, yet tempting; it is a land that is waiting to be tamed, though it will break many dreams before giving its reward.

Having lived in Nebraska many years, I can say one thing about this portrait: she is right about that wind.

Less important than windblown Hanover is the people who call it home. Among those are the Bergson family, in particular Alexandra and Emil, who are the two wildly-beating hearts of Cather’s prairie-set classic.

Alexandra is the beloved daughter of John Bergson, a failed farmer who is dying as the novel begins. Unlike My Antonia, where the central female character is as elusive as a breeze, Alexandra holds center stage. She is tough-minded, gutsy, and beautifully described by Cather, who has a way of making her characters real, in just a few lines:

There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain.

When John Bergson passes away, he leaves the homestead in Alexandra’s charge, which proves to be a good choice. Betting everything on the land – and herself – Alexandra proves herself as able as anyone.

From there, O Pioneers! takes on the form of a family epic, though at just over three-hundred pages, it is an efficient saga. To facilitate matters, O Pioneers! is divided into five parts, often with some big chronological leaps involved, as the decades slip away.

Without delving too much into plot points, it suffices to say that Cather’s story coalesces around two different love stories.

One belongs to Alexandra, who begins the novel as a sixteen year-old, and soon finds herself married to her farm and looking out for Emil. The man who catches her eye is Carl Linstrum, a sensitive soul who drifts in and out of Alexandra’s life, which makes him a bit tough to define. Many of the book’s grace notes, however, come from these two talking to each other at different stages in their lives:

“Yes, sometimes… I think about father and mother and those who are gone; so many of our old neighbors.” Alexandra paused and looked up thoughtfully at the stars. “We can remember the graveyard when it was wild prairie, Carl, and now – ”

“And now the old story has begun to write itself over there,” Carl said softly. “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same notes over for thousands of years…”

The second love story is Emil's. He is the youngest of the Bergson brood, a golden child of sorts, charismatic and a dreamer. He goes to college, to Omaha, to Mexico, all the time nurturing his love for Marie.

Unfortunately, for Emil, the beautiful, vibrant Marie is married to a fellow named Frank Shabata. Frank, a former dandy, has made it his goal in life to make Marie suffer. The lovelessness of this situation provides Emil with a dangerous sliver of hope.

I won’t say more, because despite a bit of meandering, and despite the temporal leaps, O Pioneers! is definitely going somewhere, and it has some genuine surprises along the way. For me, at least, this was one of those rare classics whose ending has not been widely trumpeted, discussed, filmed, or parodied. Unless, of course, you count the 1992 television movie of the week starring Jessica Lange, David Strathairn, Anne Heche, and Heather Graham. It is online – in dubious quality – if you care to search for it.

Even with its twists, the plot is not really the thing. For me, the calling card of O Pioneers! is the prose. Cather is a wonderful writer, whether she is tracing the outlines of a person’s character, creating dialogue between two lovers, or simply showing us the land:

Alexandra rose and looked about. A golden afterglow throbbed in the west, but the country already looked empty and mournful. A dark moving mass came over the western hill, the Lee boy was bringing in the herd from the other half-section. Emil ran from the windmill to open the corral gate. From the log house, on the little rise across the draw, the smoke was curling. The cattle lowed and bellowed. In the sky the pale half-moon was slowly silvering.

Atmosphere and sense of place are important to me when I read fiction. I like the sensation of being immersed in different worlds. Cather accomplishes this, even though that world happens to be Nebraska.

O Pioneers! is often packaged together with My Antonia and The Song of the Lark as the so-called “Great Plains Trilogy.” This is a thematic linking, not a genuine series connected by plot and character. Having read the first two books, it’s hard to say which one I like more. Both have the ability to hit you with an elemental force. Both use words to paint images that shimmer before your eyes.

What stands out with O Pioneers! is the passion it contains, and its depiction of how that passion changes as we age. There are scenes of young love that marvelously capture the raging emotional wildfire, that temporary madness when nothing else seems to have worth. And there are scenes of a different, more refined kind of love, hardened a bit by the pragmatic realities of accumulated years. “People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world,” Alexandra observes. It is a good lesson, a simple lesson, and – at times – a hard one to remember.
Profile Image for Henry Avila.
457 reviews3,240 followers
March 9, 2019
Alexandra Bergson at a young age , has to take care of her family and farm, in Nebraska, with the untimely death of their father John, he wished his oldest child, ( and smartest ) to guide the poor immigrants from Sweden in the 1880's, everyone agrees at first, struggling on the harsh prairie, are also brothers Lou, Oscar and five year old Emil, her pet, the mother knows little about farming... An endless drought soon after begins , the Sun baking the soil , the crops withering for lack of rain, year after year, fail, many farmers give up and leave for the cities, but the Bergson's endure, because of the wise and strong leadership that Alexandra brings ( the people around there, recognize that fact ). The little town of Hanover, a short distance away takes care of the needs of the local farmers, she Alexandra often meets her only friend Carl Linstrum there, from a neighboring farm, still he doesn't have a clue what to do in life, moody, always daydreaming, unsure, the obvious is in front of his eyes but he cannot focus... 16 years have passed , the land becomes prosperous, prices are skyrocketing, farmers becoming well off, some even rich, the old evil days long forgotten, the Bergson family farm has been divided between Alexandra, Lou, the intelligent brother and Oscar, the harder worker, thus makes more money to the chagrin of Lou, politics is his passion, not farming . The aimless Carl has left, and lonely Alexandra has many Swedish female servants to take care of the new house, and enjoys their company, no log cabin like the old one, even old Crazy lvar works for her, he has occasional spells, nothing to worry about ( as does Lou and Oscar), a man who loves animals better than he does humans, neglected his farm and loses it. Emil has graduated from the University of Nebraska, at Lincoln, he is thinking about becoming a lawyer, a profession that doesn't appeal to him ( or anybody else), he secretly falls in love with a married woman, effervescent Marie Shabata, her brooding, jealous husband Frank treats her badly, no love between the two has existed for years, something will happen soon, that will cause a scandal, so the naive Emil goes to Mexico City. To forget his troubles, have fun and adventures, meet new exciting people, a different society far away from Nebraska, however you can't escape your destiny. Beneath the surface there is a smothering darkness, a black cloud, a cruel spirit, a thing that can't be touched or smelled, it scares yet remains hidden, ready to strike, they all know this truth, nothing will stop, the coming of that ominous force... the cold wind stirs.
Profile Image for Meredith Holley.
Author 2 books2,235 followers
June 16, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,606 followers
December 31, 2017
Can we even imagine what it was like for the early homesteaders and pioneers, arriving (most likely) from somewhere in Europe in a last-ditch effort to make something out of nothing? There it is before them – a vast, lonely, rolling plain of earth meeting a vast, lonely, infinite sky. Where does one even begin?

In this novel, Willa Cather takes us on a journey where we see exactly where it begins – with sod huts or log cabins or some form of shelter. Then comes the dawn to dark labour of breaking the ground to plant seeds to feed themselves and their animals, if they have any.

And through this novel, we are also introduced to people who have a vision broader than just survival. A vision that eventually bears fruit as the earth begins to give back rather than just take. And so the cycle of life begins where people and animals give to the earth and the earth produces for the people and animals, gradually rewarding each other for mutual benefit.

This is part of the story in this book, but only a part. Wherever there are human beings, they bring their stories and they create and re-create their stories. As with all human stories over time, there is great joy accompanied by great sorrow, and tragedy sits next to both temptation and triumph.

What I appreciate most deeply in reading Willa Cather’s writing is the poetic flow that feels as natural as the wind rustling through a field of wheat. While I paused many times to allow her words to sink in as deeply as possible, the narrative was only enhanced by those reflective moments.

This is the first part of Willa Cather’s Great Plains Trilogy and I look forward to reading the next one as soon as possible.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,001 reviews35.9k followers
June 30, 2018
I read this book many times. Why? Its a beautiful book (and georgous stage play).
This was the first professional-'Equity'- play our daughter was in (at the age of 9).

I want to read another Willa Cather book soon.

"My Antonia" was also wonderful.

A book I haven't read yet ---and would like to is: "The Professor's House".

Willa Cather is a beautiful writer!
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews668 followers
September 21, 2019
Published in 1913, this novel brings the harsh Nebraska prairie to life.  To the ones who farm it, the sensible ones, the dreamers, and the ones who recognize the value of mending other people's fences.  A pure love and belief of the land, those who are content with their lot, and those who are unable to contemplate a lifetime of the backbreaking labor that is demanded.  How much easier it is to lose happiness than it is to find it.  Simple, full of life, loves, and regrets.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,566 reviews56.5k followers
July 7, 2020
O Pioneers (Great Plains Trilogy #1), Willa Cather

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel, by American author Willa Cather, written while she was living in New York. It is the first novel of her Great Plains trilogy, followed by The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).

O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American immigrants in the farm country, near the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century.

The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland, when her father dies, and she devotes her life, to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time, when many other immigrant families, are giving up, and leaving the prairie.

The novel is also concerned with two romantic relationships, one between Alexandra and family friend Carl Linstrum, and the other between Alexandra's brother Emil and the married Marie Shabata. ...

‎O pioneers!‬, ‎Willa Cather ; edited by Susan J. Rosowski, Charles W. Mignon with Kathleen Danker; historical essay and explanatory notes by David Stouck‬, ‎Lincoln‬: ‎University Of Nebraska Press‬, ‎1992 = 1371‬. ISBN: ‎080321457X‬, XI, 391 Pages.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز بیست و پنجم ماه آوریل سال 1994 میلادی

عنوان: اوه!، پیشگامان - کتاب اول از سه گانه چمنزار؛ نویسنده: ویلا سیلبرت کاذر (کاتر)؛ موضوع: داستان خواهران و برادران - زنان کشاورز - سده 20م

سه گانه چمنزار: کتاب نخست: «اوه!، پیشگامان! (1913 میلادی)»؛ کتاب دوم: «آهنگ لارک (1915 میلادی)»؛ کتاب سوم: «آنتونیای من (1918 میلادی)»؛

روانشاد بانو «ویلا کاتر (زاده روز هفتم ماه دسامبر سال 1873میلادی - درگذشته بیست و چهارم ماه آوریل سال 1947میلادی)، نویسنده زن آمریکایی برنده ی جایزه «پولیتزر» برای داستان بودند؛ این نویسنده آمریکایی، بیشتر شهرت خود را از طریق خلق رمانهایی به دست آوردند که به زندگی نخستین مهاجرین اروپایی، ساکن در ایالات غربی آمریکا می‌پرداختند، و از شیوه‌ های زندگی در دشت‌های بزرگ حکایت داشتند؛ آثاری همانند: «اوه پیشگامان!»، «آنتونیای من»، و «نغمهٔ لارک (آهنگ لارک)»، از جمله ی این قبیل آثار ایشان بشمار می‌آیند؛ در سال 1923میلادی ایشان برای نگارش رمان «یکی از ما، انتشارات ماهی، برگردان: نسرین شیخ نیا»، که در سال 1922میلادی نگاشته شده بود، موفق به دریافت جایزه «پولیتزر» گردیدند؛ ایشان همچنین مجموعه رمان‌هایی نیز در ارتباط با جنگ جهانی نخست آفریده اند

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 17/04/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Ines.
320 reviews192 followers
October 16, 2019
I just want to say that the last 15 pages of this book are for me worth 50 of the most important and significant books of this century...
I don’t have much to say, except that the greatest grace that a person can live and experience today is surely forgiveness, knowing how to love, leaving the life of others free, even though it is not corresponding to our projects.
Alexandra is a rigid woman, firm and integral in her thought and love... but has been able despite experiencing pain and tragedy, how to be reborn and resurrected to new life. Her sins did not comdemned to a claustrophobic life or left her to a unuseful morality. Her greatest pain has been transformed to a capacity to spread love, even to the man that created that tragedy and killed in her family.
Needless to say... our beloved Willa Cather, is definitely an author who shows you the way, the tiring but wonderful path that is the everyday life...

Dico solo che le ultime 15 pagine di questo libro valgono come 50 libri tra i piu importanti e significativi di questo secolo....
non ho molto da dire, se non che la grazia piu' grande che un uomo possa vivere e provare al giorno d'oggi è sicuramente quella del perdono, del saper amare lasciano libera la vita degli altri nonostante non sia corrispondente ai nostri progetti.
Alexandra è una donna rigida, ferma e integra nel suo pensiero e amore... ma che ha saputo, nel dolore e nella tragedia saper rinascere e risorgere a vita nuova.
non c'è bisogno di dire altro... e la nostra amatissima Willa Cather, è sicuramente un'autrice che ti indica la strada, il cammino faticoso ma stupendo che è la vita di ogni giorno....
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,652 followers
September 11, 2013
"The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman."

I don't know why I haven't read this before -- it seems like the kind of novel I should have been assigned in 9th grade -- but I'm glad I read it as an adult because I wouldn't have appreciated it as much when I was younger. I am from the Midwest and my grandparents were farmers, and I loved Willa Cather's stories about what it was like for the pioneers in Nebraska. I liked Cather's spare writing style; she gives just the right amount of description and action, and then moves on to the next chapter. In this way we get a complete picture of the whole life of Alexandra Bergson without the story ever dragging.

"His sister was a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next."

Alexandra is such a strong character -- she was as defiant as the land she was trying to tame. At one point I got so angry when some men tried to bully her that I slammed the book shut in frustration. My break didn't last long, and I should have known that Alexandra would get her way in the end.

"We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it -- for a little while."

I think I reacted so strongly to "O Pioneers!" because it reminded me of the stories my grandmother would tell about running a farm during the Depression. It is easy to romanticize this time period and to forget the backbreaking work that went into taming the land to grow crops and support a family. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an appreciation for the land or who likes strong female characters.

Update September 2013: I am rereading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which are about another pioneering American family, and it reminded me of how much I loved this Willa Cather novel. I have thought about "O Pioneers" many times since I read it a year ago -- I would put it on a list of Books To Read To Understand America. Perhaps this is my background in sociology talking, but I like stories that show how a country was formed. Aside from the politics and the war, you still need families who are doing the hard work to build homes and grow food and create new towns. You can't have a nation without everyday people. Here's to all the pioneers of the world!
Profile Image for Julie.
553 reviews276 followers
February 12, 2023
I've circumvented Willa Cather's works my entire reading life, and I don't know, at this moment if I was wrong, because I didn't much care for this novel. Rather than the "spare prose and brutal story lines" that I was promised, I found uneven prose and a story that bordered on tediousness. It danced so close to downright boring, that I found myself skipping entire passages, and then forcing myself to go back, just to be fair. At best, I would rate this one as a "good enough" story for young adults who might wish to move on to a grown-up version of Little House. I may, or may not, finish this trilogy -- and may skip ahead to see if there is anything worth reading in her later fiction.

Cather delivers some beautiful, descriptive passages on the land itself, but her characters are weak, annoying and frustrating. I feel that "in no place on earth" or in history, have people ever talked this way; their actions are somewhat more believable, if predictable, (and once again, annoying.)

She also has an irritating way of glossing over entire months, years in a story line: almost as if she, herself got bored with what she was saying and skipped over to something more interesting.

I seem to have disabused myself of the notion of Willa Cather as an iconic female writer of the early 20th century. There is nothing in this work that couldn't have been accomplished with equal proficiency by a fourteen-year-old girl writing her overly-romanticized version of early prairie life. Laura Ingalls Wilder's children's book Little House on the Prairie has more depth and perception on pioneer life than this one, in fact, and is delivered with real heart.

I cannot imagine caring less for any characters in fiction than those that people O Pioneers!, coming ready-made with its own exclamation mark.

[Conrad Richter's Ohio trilogy is superlative frontier/pioneer story telling. If you dare to compare, do yourself a favour and read Richter's work. ]
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,454 followers
May 3, 2020
This was a lot like O Klahoma! but without those catchy songs. "O! what a Beautiful Morning" would have slotted right into O Pioneers! on page 14, 29, 47, 83 and 112. Right in there. There are a lot of beautiful mornings in these pages. Maybe in those days you said everything with an exclamation mark. “O breakfast!” “O horse!” “O my head!”.
Or in my case “O how many pages are left… O no…”

This was dull.

Our lives are like the years, all made up of weather and crops and cows.

Yeah, that’s about right. In this novel there was one pretty good argument and one evil deed. But Willa, darling, it wasn’t enough. All this waffling about larkspur, hoarhound, foxtail, apricots and alfalfa. It’s like a catalogue at times or maybe a press release from the Nebraskan Chamber of Rural Commerce.

Okay, I did find one slightly saucy moment, but I don’t think it was intentional :

He thrust his hand into the pocket of his velvet trousers and brought out a handful of uncut turquoises, as big as marbles. Leaning over the table he dropped them into her lap. “There, will those do? Be careful, don't let any one see them. Now, I suppose you want me to go away and let you play with them?”

Marie was gazing in rapture at the soft blue color of the stones. “Oh, Emil! Is everything down there beautiful like these? ”

It’s possible she’s referring here to Mexico, where he’s just come from, rather than his trousers, but I think it’s ambiguous.

This novel is worthy. If it could, this novel would sell slab cake at a church bring-and-buy sale in aid of blind donkeys.

I don’t want to put the boot into Willa Cather too much, but if she calls round here again, give her a fiver and tell her I’m out.

A farm
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,162 reviews511 followers
January 3, 2016
Once again, a second time, I was at the mercy of Willa Cather's writing, and closed this book with a feeling of accomplishment: as a reader as well as a human being.

In my world, more than a century after this novel was written, we still battle nature on a daily basis and we are aware that nature will return the moment we leave this little piece of earth for a respite. With seed, roots and rain, the stories of ages of human history will be covered in an instant, wiped away as though we never walked these paths a few million times through the slow passing of time.

Willa Cather gloriously painted the lives of pioneers in the unforgiving virginal wilderness at the turn of the 20th century, somewhere between 1883 and 1890, by describing the toughness and resilience of a group of immigrants in surviving the harshness of life on the prairies of Nebraska. The Bergsons children and their neighbors established a strong community through stubborn pride and dreams. It was their dreams, after all, that kept hope alive and celebrated the good times when it finally arrived. However, tragic love, diverse opinions, and hard manual labor drove those who preferred to stay behind, when the less experienced farmers were forced to leave.

Alexandra Bergson instinctively took the road less traveled, the one on which love took a second place, and meticulous learning challenged old ideas, and the less brave combatants against nature preferred to leave. She compassionately took care of neighbors, family and friends, by making choices that left herself devoid of love and allowed loneliness to become her a life companion. The ones who benefited the most appreciated her the least, but her promise, as well as understanding of her father's insight into the land and its possibilities, made her stick to her dreams and decisions.

The most important theme in the novel starts out in the beginning of the book, in the little town Hanover, Nebraska, in the bitterly cold winter, when Alexandra's little brother Emil's little kitten got chased up a telephone pole by stray dogs. He is waiting for her at the store while she is at the doctor's office. Carl Linstrum, a neighbor, arrives to rescue the little kitten on Alexandra's request for help. In the store where they try to warm up again, they meet the exotic Bohemian little girl Marie Tovesky who, with her sunny disposition, brown curly hair like a brunette doll's, her coaxing little red mouth, and round, yellow -brown eyes, with their golden glints like the Colorado mineral called tiger-eye, attracts men like flies even as a toddler.

The plot centers around the strong bonds of friendships, which pushes love aside for most of the book, yet cannot manage to deny this strong attraction between humans in the best and worst of ways. Two love stories, with two different endings, snake through the tale. Two relationships are tested by different rules. Perseverance nestles itself in different situations leaving the people involved exhausted or dead.

This book is so rich in emotional ironies, that I sat back afterwards and wondered why it was banned numerous times by the American Library Society. The kaleidoscope of human activities, driven by strong emotional intensity portrayed people in all their splendor. What part of this masterful text of human nature in all its intricate ways insulted some readers enough to have it banned?
“And now the old story has begun to write itself over there," said Carl softly. "Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes for thousands of years.”
Since love does not form the center of the plot, although many readers probably wanted it to do so, it does play out in the hearts of lonely, often desperate people. It becomes a secondary, underlying force in the book.

The major focus, in my humble opinion, is the relationship between the different role players and their land.
Alexandra: "The land belongs to the future, Carl; that's the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk's plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother's children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it--for a little while."
Love becomes the third member of the marriage between humans and nature, resulting in an overcrowding of the relationship. Tears of joy and sorrow follows, as can be expected.

This was a magnificent read. The prose lends itself to numerous memorial quotes. Willa Cather knew how to sell this part of the Divide to her readers with her poetic descriptions of the land and the people who conquered it.

Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,225 followers
February 16, 2017
Beginning with simplicity, innocence and hope, Willa Cather runs her pioneers through the ring of fire that is the hallmark of the pioneer's life and only some of them survive.

Perhaps I've made that sound more exciting than O Pioneers! actually is. There are far too many dull scenes in this book for me to call it a perfect classic, but it is a solid addition to American western frontier literature.

Writing from her experiences, Cather populated her novel with Scandinavian immigrants, gave them backbones and leathery hides, and set them upon the fields of Nebraska. Their characters bloomed into an organic array of flowers, weeds, fruit, and prickly briars. What she sacrifices in the way of drama and action, she more than compensates in personality and the study of human behavior.

The central figure is a strong-willed and whip-smart young woman, who grows into a successful lady of the land. Our heroine is also good-natured, well-loved and kindly even to killers. If it weren't for the slightest of faults, her named could be Mary Jane. However, she is too real to be thought of as some caricature of saintliness.

Cather's My Antonia outshines this novel in its stark-yet-evocative descriptions of immigrant life on the prairie, but this is a damn fine book and worthy of the accolades it has received.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews594 followers
December 20, 2015
Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.

If you've read Willa Cather's famous My Antonia, you're already aware of the Bohemian community, those farming pioneers of the American frontier she writes about. The young Swede protagonist of this novel, Alexandra Bergson, is familiar; she grows up to become a fearless business owner and woman of the land. Though she finds her best expression within the soil (in so many orchards and cornfields she brings to life), she is also intrigued by the world beyond her country home.
We grow hard and heavy here. We don't move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I would n't feel that it was much worth while to work.

In Cather's The Professor's House, Professor Godfrey was just as distraught and unsatisfied as John Bergson, the opening 'voice' of this novel and the dying father of the family; both men relied heavily upon the heiresses of their family. Getting to know Alexandra brings back memories of Thea in Song of the Larks, except that unlike Thea who leaves to become a consumed and indifferent artist, Alexandra finds purpose at home, alongside jealous brothers who refuse to compliment her on her successful endeavors, yet still want to share in the "family's" wealth.

Alexandra makes her father a promise to keep the land that he'd struggled with unsuccessfully, for he believed in her mental girth. She takes a plot of unsuccessful land and turns it into a farming empire, buying a few farms while the price is low, and extending her property. She doesn't know much about love or companionship, and expressive thinking isn't her strong suit so I never got too close to the beat of her thought, but she feels the land in her very waking breath, and through her I saw beauty in toiling the soil:
The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other. You feel in the atmosphere the same tonic, puissant quality that is in the tilth, the same strength and resoluteness.

Willa Cather writes about the common lives of farmers, and yet she gracefully paints beautifully serene portraits of the countryside which governs each life, the country which drives the small town drama some characters endure. Her heroines are free thinkers influenced by the liberties of the wild land. She writes of the brown earth, of bitter winters, of flower-laden Springs, and of the Divide: houses tucked low into the ground and made of sod. Her female characters are strong-minded, rough-handed, and hard-working - it's rare that she spends time discussing beauty or attire. Marriage appears in between dialogue, as an afterthought. Work, purpose, artistry, or career, takes precedence with the females of her novels, and yet you don't notice this until you really take a minute to consider it, because of how subtly she infuses this within plot - since Cather disagreed with the feministic approach of some of her female peers, this is not surprising.

This was her second novel, her first, Alexander's Bridge, I have yet to read, and I'm not sure which Cather book I'll try next year. In each of her novels I've read, I've found that there is something intentionally different about the character positioning. One would say that this is the case with all writers who have composed quite a few novels, but there is something affecting about these similar-minded, similarly-situated, yet opposing characters that makes me interested in exploring these books again. In any case, it's not often that you see such a profound defense of the American midlands through aptly descriptive and moving prose.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,887 reviews1,924 followers
October 1, 2015
Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Set on the Nebraska prairie where Willa Cather (1873–1947) grew up, this powerful early novel tells the story of the young Alexandra Bergson, whose dying father leaves her in charge of the family and of the lands they have struggled to farm. In Alexandra's long flight to survive and succeed, O Pioneers! relates an important chapter in the history of the American frontier.

Evoking the harsh grandeur of the prairie, this landmark of American fiction unfurls a saga of love, greed, murder, failed dreams, and hard-won triumph. In the fateful interaction of her characters, Willa Cather compares with keen insight the experiences of Swedish, French, and Bohemian immigrants in the United States. And in her absorbing narrative, she displays the virtuoso storytelling skills that have made her one of the most admired masters of the American novel.

My Review: Simple, unadorned prose gets very wearing when it's also missing some basic character-building. In 122pp, it's not possible to do a Proustian job of lovingly explaining why people are who they are. But [The Picture of Dorian Gray], also a shortie, has the most gorgeously subtle character-building; [Mrs. Dalloway] is another example; so one concludes that Cather just wasn't interested in Lou or Oscar or the French neighbors.

As a moment in time, the book is invaluable. A concise slice of the life led by the crazy dreamers who decided the Old Country was no longer enough for them and their kids, packed what they could afford to carry, and vamoosed for the New World.

There is a private society that's trying to get together a colony of people with all the talents necessary to keep themselves alive on Mars. It's a one-way ticket...just like the pioneers of old.

How I wish I was young and healthy. I'd be on that rocket in a heartbeat.
Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
566 reviews3,928 followers
January 11, 2017
Este es otro libro para sentir más que para dejarse llevar por la trama, es muy cortito, sencillo pero TAN evocador. Habla de gente corriente, de trabajadores y de mujeres emprendedoras a más no poder. El final me ha desconcertado un poco pero en general me ha parecido una delicida de lectura (y además me ha enganchado muchísimo, justo lo que necesitaba).
Profile Image for Quo.
284 reviews
November 19, 2020
The area called "The Divide" and the Nebraska landscape figure almost as characters in Cather's novel, O Pioneers! just as the Mississippi River does in Mark Twain's works. Willa Cather has a wonderfully wistful sense of the land & its importance. Beyond that however, there are pulls & tugs, as some of Cather's characters portray a keen sense of the need to expand their horizons, to explore the world beyond. The focal point in the novel, "Alex" (Alexandra Bergson), while very rooted in the land she occupies in Nebraska, states at one point that It's what goes on in the (outside) world that reconciles me. Meanwhile, regarding another character, a rather worldly Carrie Jensen, it is said that her despondence abated just as soon as she left the prairie.

While not a native of Nebraska, Willa Cather embraced the soil and conveyed Midwestern roots but it seemed only by leaving Nebraska for points much farther east could the author fully appreciate her connection to the area of "The Divide" that is at the the core of this & some of her other memorable tales.

Oddly enough, Willa Cather, who for a fair stretch of time saw herself as William Cather & dressed in men's clothes at a time when few women wore trousers & similar garb, seems to cast characters in O Pioneers! who often seem androgynous.

This is especially true of the main character, Alexandra Bergson. For in a way, "Alex" serves as a model or herald for a robust late 19th Century woman & a vision of what a truly independent woman might become, though someone who is indifferent to romance & sexuality, married to the land as if it were her husband rather than being open to suitors, though the very meek but supportive Carl Lindstrom is definitely more than a casual friend. After Carl's return from Alaska where opportunity failed to surface for him, a meaningful partnership with Alexandra seems in the offing.

The author's 1st novel was in the style of Henry James, an author Willa Cather very much admired but fellow writer Sarah Jewitt emphatically encouraged Cather to write about what she knew best and her subsequent & very successful novels did just that. While there is more than a bit of ambiguity about a few of the characters, I hold with a Cather biographer, Sharon O'Brien, who comments
To argue that most of Cather's male characters engaged in love affairs are not really male but female, as some of her readers have done, is to question the writer's ability to transcend self, gender & sexuality by adopting other selves and to assume that because Willa Cather was lesbian, she was encoding a lesbian attachment whenever writing of heterosexual love, a rigid view of her fiction.
O Pioneers! represents a novel rich in detail and full of memorable characters. Among them is Alexandra Bergson's brother Emil, a college man with a fascination for scientific method and seemingly torn between two worlds. Emil serves as a considerable support for Alexandra, encouraging her entrepreneurial spirit & reflecting her view of nature. Alexandra seems a more than competent administrator of the property she manages and which had been in the care of her late father, from whom she gained an avid respect for the land. Her ability to take risks, unlike two other brothers who were bequeathed land of their own, seems fueled in equal parts by her own imagination but also by her brother Emil's exposure to new ideas while at university, even though he is less than inclined to spend a lifetime as a farmer.

I don't wish to reveal the plotline in greater detail or the novel's concluding event but this is a book full of well-crafted prose that wraps around the concept of the immigrant experience in rural America and the relationship to the land of people who were not born caring for it but who had to to develop their methods of stewardship one step at a time. Just one example:
We hadn't any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep & stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still.

As for me, I began to buy land. For years after that, I was always squeezing & borrowing until I was afraid to show my face at the banks. And then, all at once, men began to come to me offering to lend me money--and I didn't need it! Then I moved ahead & built this house. And now the old story has begun to write itself over there. Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.

Upon returning to Nebraska years later, Cather reckoned that the days of the pioneer were at an end, at least with regard to the Nebraska the author remembered fondly. The various ethnic & religious communities had seemed to lose their distinct qualities, as some folks intermarried, while others moved away & blended in to the fabric of American life elsewhere.

However, in reading about the author's sense of nostalgia for earlier times, I was confronted with the comment from the film Nebraska where one of the characters remarks, "My folks are over there in the Catholic cemetery. Catholics wouldn't be caught dead in this cemetery around all these damned Lutherans!" Some traditions die hard, so to speak...

*1st photo image within my review of a young Willa Cather; 2nd=of the author's childhood home; 3rd= Cather later in life; the last= a landscape in "Willa Cather country", Red Cloud, Nebraska.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,240 reviews533 followers
April 18, 2013
Willa Cather appears to write so effortlessly or, perhaps, I should say, her prose reads so effortlessly. Her characters ring true and the land looms over them all. Of course Cather lived on that prairie and knew that land. Cather knew farm families like the Bergsons and possibly a woman like Alexandra Bergson, whose life was fully formed and influenced by the land.

There are different views of the land's influence on its people:

"John Bergson had the Old-World belief that land, in
itself, is desirable. but this land was an enigma. It was
like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness,
that runs wild and kicks things to pieces. He had an idea
that no one understood how to farm it properly, and this
he often discussed with Alexandra. Their neighbors,
certainly, knew even less about farming than he did."(p 14)

It would fall to Alexandra to lead her family in taming the land as best she could, trying to keep the promise made to her father. After a trip to look at land in another area, Alexandra rides home with her young brother Emil.

"When the road began to climb the first long swells of
the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil
wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so
radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time,
perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic
ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning.
It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her
eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.
Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which
breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent
to a human will before. The history of every country begins
in the heart of a man or a woman." (p 35)

Alexandra and her brothers work tirelessly, as do their neighbors. This story is an anthem to those farmers who gave everything to the land, some loving it, some despising it. They are the forerunners of the remaining family farms of today.

One last quote just because I like it's picture of the season:

"Winter had settled down over the Divide again; the season
in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks in sleep
between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring.
The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down
in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps
to his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen
garden patch to another and are hard put it to find frost-
bitten cabbage stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintry
waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one
color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky
are the same leaden gray...One could easily believe that in
that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness
were extinct forever." (p 97)

But formidable people such as Alexandra saw the possibility of spring returning.

Highly recommended
Profile Image for Dolors.
527 reviews2,208 followers
October 22, 2017
I was enraptured by Cather's smooth prose, the beautifully woven descriptions of the land with its double facet; hostile wilderness and source of livelihood; I warmed to all the characters, who were exquisitely painted in relation to the different degrees of understanding of the land, I fell prey to the nostalgic hues that tinted the story, its cinematic texture; but when I turned the last page of the book, I felt part of the magic disappeared by Alexandra's conservative morals.
The writing is undeniably delightful, the impression of real life happening through the eyes of very well developed characters straddling three generations and the land finally arising as the sole "winner" in the story tugged at my heartstrings in a cannon of voices, but I also felt the need to substract a star as homage for those two white butterflies fluttering under the canopy of the mulberry tree, which still remains impassible to the ailments of men under the gibbon moon.

I will be looking forward to reading The Song of the Lark and confirm whether My Ántonia is my favorite of the Great Plains Trilogy.
Profile Image for Antoinette.
753 reviews39 followers
April 15, 2020
“She had never known before how much the country meant to her.The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”

This book is as much about the landscape as it is about Alexandra Bergson, an intelligent selfless woman, whose father has entrusted with his land. Working the tough prairie land is difficult, but Alexandra has a love of the land and the determination to follow it through. Her spirit and love of the land reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara (although not as ruthless) and So Big by Edna Ferber.

Willa Cather is a lovely writer who brought the time and the place to life- 1880’s Nebraska, where many of the farmers were immigrants. The melodic flow of her writing was a joy to read. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to read more by the author.
Profile Image for Britany.
965 reviews417 followers
August 7, 2017
Alexandra Bergson may just be my favorite female protagonist. Holy Moly was I impressed with the strength of this book - considering the time period that it was crafted in.

The Bergson's own a farm in Hanover, Nebraska and while most of the world is moving away from farmland and towards the new technology and quite literally moving closer to the river. Alex puts her foot down and takes control of her family's farm. Despite having 2 older brothers (Lou & Oscar- dimwits!) and 1 younger brother- Emil, she stands up for herself and the future of her land. The novel opened with Emil & Alex playing with a kitten, I knew at once that the descriptions of the prairie lands would hold me captive. Enter a few orchards and sweeping trees and a horse or two and I'm completely "IN" with the setting of this book.

My heart frequently rose and fell over the coarse of this short novel, and the characters held me captive. I grew to love Alex and Marie Shabata (her darling neighbor). The compassion that this novel shows was far ahead of its time. No idea what took me quite so long to pick up a book by Ms. Cather- but I'm so glad I did. Looking forward to more of her work.
Profile Image for Kim.
426 reviews507 followers
March 14, 2014

Where has Willa Cather been all my reading life? Until fairly recently, I'd never heard of her. Now that I've read just one of her novels, I want to read more.

This short novel is centred on Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants whose intelligence and hard work brings her success as a farmer in a rural area of early 20th century Nebraska. It's a deceptively simple novel, with a third person narrative progressed in chronological order. However, even though Cather's narrative style is straightforward, economical and without artifice, her descriptions of landscape are deeply poetic and her characters are created with great compassion. Cather made me feel her connection to the time, the place and the people and there is something about her writing which rings true. I'm very happy to have become acquainted with her work.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 4 books574 followers
November 5, 2007
I don’t know how, but I got through all of high school and college in America without reading a word of Willa Cather. It all worked out for the best though, since ten years ago I would have probably found her work like, totally boring and about farming and the human condition, or whatever.

I picked up My Antonia a few months ago and loved it to bits - to me, nothing beats stories written in ordinary language about ordinary people. Mix in some bleak, sweeping plains, some overtly lesbian action, and, yes, some awesome stuff about the human condition, and I’m happy.

O Pioneers! was written five years after My Antonia and you can pretty much tell. The story, while similar, is a bit more fantastic and formulaic - Cather studied a lot of Henry James early in her life, and you can tell. Everything is a little simpler and more straightforward in this book — the themes are more concrete, the storyline moves forward steadily, and the ending is clear-cut.

Still, though, there is some beautiful, wonderful stuff happening. The flat, blank unrelenting landscape makes for a great setting in that the characters are very much on their own - affected only by the weather and by each other. There’s not much out in Nebraska during this time period besides sod and humanity, and Cather knows how to write about both.

It’s one of those books where you want to underline things, all the time, like this: “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country that have been singing the save five notes over for thousands of years. The young people, they live so hard. And yet I sometimes envy them.” Or this, on the very next page, about problem with being free: “Freedom so often means one isn’t needed anywhere.”

And throughout so much of the book, I couldn’t help reeling at how ahead of her time Cather seemed: about women, about education, about religion. And, although it can never be confirmed, since she destroyed all of her personal papers before her death, it seems that Cather was one of the first authors to write about gay rights (but do we really need solid proof? Check out her author photo, for goodness sakes!). For example, in O Pioneers! the moral center of the book is an old man named Ivar. Ivar, whose love and understanding of animals makes him integral to the community, is also mostly mad due to a vague temptation of the body that is never named. He always walks barefoot to punish his body for what he is feeling and constantly reads the Bible for comfort - he has sacrificed his freedom to love in order to reach eternal paradise when he dies.

The book, ultimately, is about the constraints of freedom — being constrained in some respects in order to be free in others - and how getting older means choosing which freedoms you can live with best. Too bad I never got the chance to write a five-page high school essay on this.

Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,733 reviews14.1k followers
April 23, 2014
The prairie land of Nebraska, many immigrants from other countries flocked to the wide open spaces and land for the taking, many were defeated by the harsh conditions. Where the weather could make or break one, were intakes were most often re-paid in misfortune. Many would leave, go back to the cities and jobs in factories, but for those who stayed, made wise decisions the land would yield much.

A wonderful story, beautiful but plain prose, descriptive writing, one can feel the beauty and alternately the loneliness of the plains. The people and their ties to the churches of their choice where they found solace and companionship. Alexandra is a very strong woman, but I just loved Ivor with his many flaws, but quiet knowledge of the animals.
Their are tragedies of course, love, and always a need to move forward, to give and retain for future generations.

Loved this simple but brilliant story.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,462 reviews560 followers
September 5, 2021
[4.5] Cather left me cold when I read her a few decades ago. I'm so glad I re-visited her! I love so much about this book. I'm not a fan of descriptive prose but Cather's words succinctly placed me in the Nebraska farmland. I understood how the power of the land motivated and inspired Alexandra.

O Pioneers is set in the late 19th and early 20th century and Alexandra, who grows to become an independent and intelligent businesswoman, has to fight against the restraints of her time. One of the most stunning scenes in the novel is a conversation about her future with her brothers, who dismiss her because of her sex. I also liked the unusual development of her relationship with Carl. I am looking forward to returning to more Cather!
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books781 followers
May 30, 2015
I remember putting Death Comes for the Archbishop back on the library shelf when I was kid, thinking it sounded boring. Perhaps that preconception stuck with me, because this is the first Cather I've read. It is far from boring. The prose seems effortless, the pages turn quickly and I became invested in the characters.

Over the weekend, while in Jackson, Mississippi, I came across a quoted conversation (in the Mississippi Writers Exhibit in the public library renamed the Eudora Welty Library) that had Faulkner answering Clark Cable's question about whom he thought were the best living writers:

"Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself."

I found it interesting that Faulkner included Cather (and that I came across this while I was reading her for the first time). Though there are no similarities as far as their styles, the conception of the land as an eternal presence can be found in this novel, as it is in Faulkner's works.

This was an early novel of Cather's and from what I've heard, there are others of hers that are even better. I look forward to reading them.
Profile Image for Steve.
442 reviews477 followers
April 27, 2016

Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Isn't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.

A curious chance it is that in the midst of bitter efforts by Republican legislators in the American South to protect us all from the terrifying possibility that someone with different sexual equipment might have the temerity to use the neighboring stall I finally read one of Willa Cather's novels. I thought I knew that she was lesbian, but a little research indicates that she was what we would now call a transgender man. She was already out as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, where she was threatened with expulsion unless she toed the line.

Perhaps out in the prairie she could express her(him)self as she wished,(*) but not in 19th century urban America. She went back into the closet, where many of our fellow human beings wish everyone with a different sexual expression would go (if not somewhere much worse). Well, to put it in terms I don't normally use in this forum, ya'll can kiss my grits.

Though I have vivid memories from boyhood of traversing the infinite Midwest plains in trains, since then those expanses are something far below the plane that is taking me to some urban center. Finally, Cather has made the plains almost appealing to me.

In O Pioneers! (1913) she writes lovingly of her native Nebraska and of the immigrant Swedes, Bohemians and French who settled the section of Nebraska she grew up in. And, no surprise there, the central character is an independent, strong-willed but empathetic and generous woman, Alexandra. In a smooth and direct prose Cather unrolls a portrait of Alexandra, her family, friends and acquaintances through thirty years of life beginning in the 1880's, a life full of failures and successes, joys and sorrows, with an admixture of tragedy.

Cather, the author, is also independent, strong-willed, empathetic and generous; and, to my mind, she is very clear-eyed. Every moment that begins to taste too sweet is tempered by Nature's harshness and humankind's stupidity. O Pioneers! has convinced me - I'm going to start reading my way into her oeuvre.

(*) Actually, had I known Willa Cather personally, I would refer to her solely with male pronouns. My transgender friends unanimously prefer to be treated in every respect as a person of their self-identified gender. However, I didn't know her and, what is more, I have learned that it is invalid to project contemporary, culture-bound concepts of sexuality into the past and into other cultures. But that is another topic.
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