As a Kansan, I have a tendency to roll my eyes whenever I hear my home state referred to as “boring.” Boring geography. Boring scenery. Boring history. Boring towns. Boring, boring, boring.
The perfect antidote to misconceptions about the Midwest, and the Great Plains in particular, comes to my mind when I hear these critiques: Willa Cather’s 1913 novel O! Pioneers–and, yes, I have written already about this book earlier in this blog, but for far too briefly.
Now, you might be wondering how a 114-year-old book that you barely remember from middle or high school (assuming you read it at all) is relevant to the Midwest today or would even make an enjoyable read.
Yet Cather does both, and quite well, too. Not only is this novel a great book for understanding the Great Plains and its history, but O! Pioneers‘ vivd characters and clear, almost understated style will make it be one of the best historical classic novels you can dust off.
To be sure, Cather’s novels can be off-putting at first if you’re looking for plot, action, and drama.
O! Pioneers does feature a murder about three-fourths the way into the story, but for 99.99% else of the novel, there’s nothing anywhere as dramatic. It’s story, just story. Pure and simple, meant to be enjoyed more for what it is than anything about how it “furthers” or “develops” anyone or anything, which can be a relief sometimes in a novel.
This novel celebrates the settlers of a small Nebraska town, in particular the Bergson family that’s emigrated from Sweden. Family leader Alexandra sees the turmoil and success of the changing countryside as more and more settlers arrive over the years to create thriving communities. But also communities full of complications, looking no further than Alexandra’s family, as her brother begins to fall in love with a married woman. There’s competition among Alexandra and her brothers, too, in terms of land and money, and a long, almost inscrutable relationship Alexandra has with a neighbor that takes a (what I found to be) surprise turn at the end.
While the trials and growth of the Bergsons and their fellow settlers are undeniably the focus of this novel, you probably will get an understanding of just how important the Plains are to the book, as well. With Cather’s writing, it’s like the land is another character by itself. While Cather keeps her narratives uncluttered and almost sparse, her descriptions of “the ocean of grass” that is the High Plains (I can attest to this) are stunning. There were some moments while reading this novel that I felt like I wanted just descriptions, and the plot and characters could be secondary.
So while O! Pioneers isn’t worried about getting character X from this situation to that in order to develop the plot, it instead gives you a startling view of American history. That Cather doesn’t shy away from the problems of the times adds an authenticity to this novel and ensures you won’t mistake it for any rosy romanticizing of the past.
Follow me on Twitter at @ethan_nelsonwrt for takes on reading and writing, all under 280 characters.