In "O Pioneers!", her classic novel first published in 1913, Willa Cather wrote, "The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman." By revealing to us the hearts of those pioneer immigrants in this book, Cather offers a moving meditation on United States culture and history.
"O Pioneers!" tells the story of a community in Nebraska farm country. Her main character, Alexandra Bergson, is a Swedish immigrant. Cather creates a marvelous portrait of the community and its rich mix of European ethnic groups: Norwegian, Swedish, French, etc. It is especially fascinating to see the multicultural, multiethnic world they created in the United States. Cather also depicts the cultural and linguistic "shift" that takes place along generational lines.
Cather's story deals with issues of economics, gender roles, and sexuality. In addition to the formidable Alexandra, she creates a cast of compelling characters. And her luminous prose style evokes all of the sensations of Alexandra's world: the smell of ripe wheat, the chirping of insects in the long grass, the golden play of light in an apple orchard.
But this is Alexandra's book. She is a great American heroine who reminds me of such beloved characters as Zora Neale Hurston's Janie (from "Their Eyes Were Watching God") or Alice Walker's Celie (from "The Color Purple"). Like those great characters, Alexandra will break your heart, deeply touch your soul, and ultimately leave you feeling richer for having known her.
Finally, as an interesting companion text to "O Pioneers!" try "Anna Christie," the 1922 play by U.S. writer Eugene O'Neill. O'Neill's life and career were contemporary with Cather's, and "Anna Christie," like "O Pioneers!", deals with a Swedish immigrant woman in the United States.