Monday, August 8, 2011


The back jacket flap for Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! introduces the book this way: "One of the most important American writers of the twentieth century, Willa Cather mined her childhood experiences on the Nebraska plains and her later love for the Southwest to create timeless tales of romance, tragedy, and spiritual seeking." One of the most important American writers of the century? It sounded like a perfect choice for my twentieth century classic for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge. The fact that the book has been sitting on my shelf for more than ten years, gathering dust, made me all the more determined to finally read it.

O Pioneers! is the story of Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant to the Nebraska plains. At the young age of twenty she is orphaned and left in charge of three younger brothers and a farm that is just barely supporting them. The two eldest boys are hard-working but unimaginative and dour. The youngest, Emil, is sweet, smart, and Alexandra’s pet.

Alexandra’s father leaves her in charge because he sees in her the intelligence and steadiness needed to make something of the land. (He suspects the boys will turn tail and run when time gets hard – and they almost do.) It is Alexandra who has the vision to make something of the farm and enrich them all. She is fair-handed with her brothers, but she particularly dotes on Emil. She sends him off to college so that he will have a chance to make something more of himself – the American dream.

The book follows their lives as the Bergson’s become wealthy landowners. The transformation is not necessarily a good one for the family. Alexandra, in particular, leads a very lonely life. It’s painful to see the self-centered actions of her brothers. (Smug superiority for the older two, tragic romantic in the youngest.) The book does not portray men in general in a very admirable way. Through it all, she soldiers on, embodying the pioneer spirit.

The novel very nicely portrays the lifestyle of Nebraska pioneers – the hardships, the friendships, the solidarity, and the importance of the land itself. The style is old fashioned and the narrative has a leisurely pace. It’s one of those subtle books that uses spare language yet nevertheless examines the characters carefully and gets you to pondering human nature.

In the end, I did have to admire Alexandra. However, I pitied her just as much. She deserved better people in her life.


  1. I have a Willa Cather on my shelf that I have promised myself to read this year. So glad this challenge got you to read yours!

  2. I've seen this book many times, but really never even took the time to see what it is about. I've never read Willa Cather, so maybe I'll give this one a try. Great thoughts!

  3. I have to admit that I've not read much in the way of important American literature, so thanks for introducing me to this book :)