Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 3, 2011

All over the world, land as a means of livelihood, as insurance against financial uncertainties and as a legacy that can be passed on to subsequent generations has resulted in deep attachment and strong emotions around its ownership. Nowhere has this been more pronounced, more recent, more emotional and more violent than what one has witnessed in America, giving writers a fertile subject for producing some outstanding novels. John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath“, “To a God Unknown” and Jane Smiley‘s “A Thousand Acres” are some bright examples that I can think of. Into this category of novels one can also add Willa Cather‘s “O Pioneers!”

O Pioneers!” is at once a lament, a requiem, a celebration of the troubles, hardships, joys, frustrations and successes of the early settlers who tried to homestead and tame the fallow, inclement lands of America and in the process generated extra-ordinary prosperity and a sub-culture which is unique. Written with a great sense of understanding, compassion and a genuine feel for the lives of these pioneers, the book contains some of the most mature and heartwarming prose I’ve read so far. Consider this wonderful capturing of the grand beauty of the land:  

The little town behind them had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of prairie, and the over stern frozen country received them into its bosom. The homesteads were few and far apart; here and there a windmill gaunt against the sky, a sod house crouching in the hollow. But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of the human society that struggled in its somber wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness

The novel is written as a description of the transition from times of desperation to times of bounty in time snapshots that have large gaps between their occurrences. Despite this, Cather ensures that all characters in the book retain their relevance and vitality. Cather’s characterization of Alexandra Bergson, the main protagonist of the novel who struggles against the hostile conditions and has an “Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable”; is a pleasure to read.

Cather’s observation of her surroundings and of the human psyche is deep and the ability to portray the same is masterly. Sample two of her observations. The first is on the innate paradox of marriage

 “The trouble is you almost have to marry a man before you can find out the sort of wife he needs: and usually it’s exactly the sort you are not” …….or …. “On the shipbuilder’s part, this marriage was an infatuation, the despairing folly of a powerful man who cannot bear to grow old”

And the second is the gentle description of a graveyard

“As he rode past of the graveyard he looked at the brown hole in the earth where Amedee was to lie, and felt no horror. That, too, was beautiful that “simple doorway into forgetfulness” ”

The book is full of such mature and insightful observations. What I liked a lot more than the narrative flourishes and storytelling abilities of Cather is the central message of the book which dwells on the ideal view of ownership that man should have towards the land he tills “  

“… suppose I do will my land to their children, what difference will that make? 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

Cather’s views on the need to respect land and the in-born impermanence of ownership is sagely, wise and hoary. This is a thread that runs through the book from beginning to end and it is this that makes the book a wonderful read

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