Sunday, 11 September 2016

"The history of any country begins in the heart of a man or a woman"

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by Willa Cather which has been recently republished as part of Penguin Classics' Pocket Penguin series. Now, I'm not known for reviewing classics as such in this blog but I am a fan of The Happy Reader who have selected O Pioneers! as their book for Autumn, so I'm in.

Willa Cather's first great plains saga O Pioneers is set in the heart of the Nebraskan frontier at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The story hangs on strong willed and fiercely independent Alexandra Bergson who is given a farm to manage by her death-bed father in the fictional small town of Hanover, Nebraska. At only 16 years old Alexandra must manage a brutally subsistence way of life for her family whilst other's around her abandon the town after drought and disastr.

Despite the harshness depicted in the novel there are love affairs and occasional rays of hope which lift the novel to part romantic pastoral. The fact that this novel continues to be celebrated today in adaptations from TV films (1992) to opera (2009) shows a deep connection with the American psyche. Indeed for many Willa Cather is up there with Melville and Steinbeck in the canon of great American writers.


Willa Cather was trained as a journalist and at times the novel is more essay than literature but in places Cather shows a softer side; "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". In truth the story is more domestic than the title suggests; more cattle rearing than gold rush but perhaps this is Cather's own response to Walt Whitman's poem O Pioneers, O Pioneers?

For me this novel is particularly interesting today with forthcoming presidential elections and an electorate bitterly divided on immigration and social lines. In Cather's novel we find disparate communities struggling to survive in a patchwork landscape of Swedes, French, Irish and English families. Not exactly an easy read but a worthy diversion from the contemporary literary fiction I'm usually pouring over. 

I read this novel in paperback, in part, with a coffee and a pastel de Nata at Shoreditch Grind in East London

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, published by Penguin, 208 pages

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