Sunday, March 19, 2017
How Cather continues to surprise readers in O Pioneers!
Part of the power, and part of the sorrow, of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! comes through her depiction of the central character, Alexandra, the older sister who pretty much runs the family farm and saved the family from certain bankruptcy and failure by her bold decision to invest more land rather than sell off land to pay down debts. As the novel progresses, we see Alexandra in mid-life, and once again Cather defines expectations - this is not Little House on the Prairie. The family is bitterly divided, with her two older brothers jealous of her success and unwilling to acknowledge or recognize her contribution to the successful run of their combined estates. This conflict comes to a head when Alexandra's childhood friend Carl comes to visit; it's obvious that he's a bit of a ne'er do well and dreamer - he's en route to the Alaska gold mines, good luck! - and it's also obvious that Alexandra is interested in him. The brothers challenge her and warn her that Carl may just be after her $ - and that may be true - but she lashes back and says she can do whatever she wants with the land she owns and the $ she has earned. They refuse to recognize that a woman played a role in their prosperity and they split - a seemingly permanent rift. We feel for Alexandra of course and wish her to have some success and happiness in her personal life - but we also sense that yes, Carl may be trying to take advantage of her; it's not clear. In a parallel story line, the youngest brother, Emil, is obviously in love with his childhood friend, Marie, who lives in a loveless marriage to a crude and ignorant man. This all verges on melodrama, of course, but Cather beautiful writing - particularly in her lyrical description of the prairie in all seasons (especially the harsh winter) and her espousal of the rights of women and the importance of women to success in the farm communities - brings the novel up to another level, and it's continuously surprising as we, or at least I, expect her to revert to cliches of the happy farm family - yet she never shies from depicting the misery, the loneliness, the sexism, or the drive to leave the small farm communities for life in the big city (or for instant riches in the gold fields), and the sadness of those left behind in a diminished world.