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O Pioneers! (Bantam Classic) Mass Market Paperback – March 1, 1989
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From School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up—This work, written in 1913, was the first in Cather's "Great Plains" trilogy, and it was followed by The Song of the Lark and My Antonia. Strong-willed, intelligent Alexandra Bergson is the daughter of Swedish immigrants. She inherits her father's farmland instead of it being left to her brothers, Emil, Oscar, and Lou, because she has the vision and foresight to try new crops, buy additional lands, and take risks in order to reap future rewards. Cather's poetic and lyrical writing captures the Nebraska prairie and rolling hills. Using a variety of voices and capturing the dialects of the various immigrants who inhabit the novel, reader Betsy Bronson is impeccable. Her melodic voice imbues Cather's words with the sentiments of love, envy, jealousy, and peace that drive the story. This recording is delightful and leaves one with the understanding and appreciation that the land is always there for those who take time to truly see and appreciate it.—Patricia Ann Owens, formerly with Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, Mt. Carmel --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
The land belongs to the future... that's the way it seems to me....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."
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
Actually, this comes close to being the true story of my mother's immigrant farmer family, who were Germans of a sort. Alexandra, the powerful woman at the heart of Cather's story, the one pictured on the cover of this edition, reminds me powerfully of my great-grandmother, who was just a generation younger than Willa Cather. Alexandra's two selfish and small-minded brothers, Lou and Oscar, are spitting-images of my grandfather and his brother. Frank Shabata, the sorry husband, is 'awful close' to a portrayal of my father. The verisimilitude of Cather's characters, so fair and square in depicting both their strength and their frailty, is her best accomplishment as a writer. You won't need family photos of these characters to recognize them as real people.
The part that's not true to the history of my family as pioneers and sod-busters is also what's not true about the novel. The real people were more ordinary, lived more one-day-at-a-time, didn't have the luxury to leaping across a flat and commonplace decade from one chapter to the next. They had to get up in the morning, drudge through the day, cut their toe nails and scrape their corns, go to bed too worried about chores and bills to dream big dreams. But who would want to read about them?
"O Pioneers!" is a triple love story, starring three handsome men and two beautiful women. One couple ends up happy... as happy as they're able to be, anyway. There's plenty of passion, frustration, jealousy, misunderstanding to make a Hollywood blockbuster on the scale of "Giant". For all I know, there have been ten films of this novel already. That's weakness of the book, one way it falls short of really deserving to be called a "world's classic", that it was ripe for Hollywood when it was published in 1913, even before Hollywood was ripe for it.
"O Pioneers!" is also a love song to the Land, to the beauty and bounty of the short grass prairie. It begins with a description of the hard-scrabble homestead and it ends with a paean to the "...fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!" Now that's a 'right pretty' sentiment, but it's not terribly accurate. Teachers, don't assign this book as a depiction of the history of the Midwest. Some few sodbusters may have felt ennobled by their land, but a lot more of them were plenty ready to sell to greenhorns and move farther west or south. That's the true story of the agricultural frontier in America, from colonial days through the Ohio Valley and onward to the Dakotas; those who got rich did so more by selling than by clinging to the soil. Cather herself may have loved the western skies but she wrote under the skies of eastern and European cities. Those shining-eyed Young have been fleeing to either coast since the first pioneers gave birth to them. The prosperity that Cather portrayed among the Swedes and Bohemians of Nebraska in the years before WW1 was an artifact of the world economy. It was a bubble. It collapsed soon enough. Nebraska and the Dakotas haven't thrived in the way "O Pioneers!" envisioned. Declining populations, stagnant and dying towns, narrow-minded reactionary social and political grudges against the very sort of people that Willa Cather became! The story of Alexandra and Carl ends at the brink of their future; I can almost promise you that if they'd lived as long as my great-grandmother, they'd have retired in Arizona.
But there is a resonant grandeur to "O Pioneers!" It's worth reading, in order to sense the courage and hardihood of the farmer-immigrants who built the heartland of America. It's not as colorful or touching as the work of Ole Rolvaag; "Giants in the Earth" and its sequels are the greatest 'world's classics' of the American West. It's not as honest and accurate as Hamlin Garland's "Main-Traveled Roads". It's nowhere near the epic adventure, the magniloquent sweep, of the four Emigrant novels of the Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg. But once you pick it up, you won't be tempted to read anything else until you finish it, and once you finish it, the woman Alexandra will stick in the family-photo album of your mind.
On a different level it does read like a romance novel for its time. Even with some of the darker outcomes of the characters, you can see it as a soap opera of its day.