O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (American modern literature)
“O Pioneers! tells the story of Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, who is given her family’s farm after the death of her father. She sets out to make the land pay—even when everyone else is moving on—and succeeds brilliantly, while coming to realize her love for a close family friend.”
My parents joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Topeka, Kansas when I was two. As a child I participated in Pioneer Day in summer Primary every year to commemorate the arrival of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and even dressed up like a pioneer in a gingham dress, pinafore, and bonnet my mother had made for me. While I appreciate those particular pioneers and the heritage they’ve given to me by adoption, I don’t have one ancestor who actually made that trek. My pioneers are the settlers of Kansas, not Utah. One of the neighboring states of Kansas is Nebraska, the setting of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! The way Cather describes the landscape in O Pioneers! gives me such a vision of the place where I grew up that reading it always evokes a feeling of nostalgia in me.
O Pioneers! isn’t a religious book, but it provides a glimpse of Zion all the same in the character of Alexandra Bergson. I love the way she lives her life the best way she knows how, despite the opinions of those around her. When her brothers counsel her to send an old man everyone thinks is crazy to an asylum, she insists that he continue working for her. She employs girls from her home country, Sweden, and pays for their expenses to get to the U.S., despite the fact that she loses most of them to marriage within just a few years. The thing that makes her truly Zion-like, in my opinion, is the way she forgives Frank Shabata for the very great way he wrongs her. I’ve read this little book three times, and every time I do, Alexandra’s understanding of Frank and compassion for him makes me emotional. It’s so gratifying to read about a character who uses her influence and wealth in such an intelligent, humane way. O Pioneers! is a beautiful little novel I’m sure I will read again and again.
Here are two separate paragraphs from Part 1, Chapter 5 that capture both the essence of Alexandra’s character and why this novel always takes me “home.”
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman. . . .
Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it. Even her talk with the boys had not taken away the feeling that had overwhelmed her when she drove back to the Divide that afternoon. She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.
The featured image came from Pixabay.