Saturday, May 23, 2015

CCQ II -- O Pioneers!

photo by Anna Reavis

"He felt as if a clear light broke upon his mind, and with it a conviction that good was, after all, stronger than evil, and that good was possible to men." from O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

I've finished the second Willa Cather novel in my Comprehensive Cather Quest, and I think I'm in love again.  O Pioneers! made me feel like I remember feeling after stumbling onto My Antonia purely by accident on a trip to Alaska, of all places.   Since that serendipitous discovery in Anchorage in 2000, My Antonia has remained in my memory as one of my favorite books.  

Thursday afternoon, as I was finishing the novel, I began to sense reflections and hear echoes of words, ideas, and thoughts I had read earlier in the day as I read in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  So I opened both books and started to compare.  If you ever look for similarities, allusions, common thought processes, they seem to be everywhere.  As I read back and forth between the two books, inevitably, it seems, I began to hear whispers of other, earlier thinkers.  Was Whitman the father and Thoreau the grandfather of these revelations?  Eventually I discovered that O Pioneers! is named after a Whitman poem, but I didn't know that at the time.  It's amazing, really, when you begin to follow the logical progression of ideas down its time-defying rabbit hole.  There have been so few truly enlightened thinkers in our recorded history, and so many of their revelations tend toward the same end:  that grace, beauty, hope, and redemption are what matter, that the world is full of light if we will just see it, that nirvana, salvation, enlightenment is reached in exactly the opposite way we letting go and letting life unfold as it will.

O Pioneers!, the first novel in Cather's Prairie Trilogy, is the story of the unfolding of life for strong, independent Alexandra Bergson, who, as a teen, takes control of her family's struggling farm and builds it into a sprawling, thriving estate.  As the novel opens, John Bergson lays dying.  One of the few things we learn about him is that he only trusts his adolescent daughter, Alexandra, to run his fledgling farm.  Although he has two sons near her age, he knows only she has the foresight and feeling for the land necessary for success and survival for his recently arrived immigrant family.

Alexandra devotes her life to the family and farm, sacrificing her chance to have a family of her own in order for the land to flourish and for her youngest brother, Emil, to have what she considers a chance at the proper kind of life.  Emil does go to college and has plans to become a lawyer.  Having reached the age where I no longer judge success by ascendancy, I see quite a bit of irony in Alexandra's inability to judge herself a success.  I find her to be one of the most successful, courageous women in literature.  She has both big courage and little courage, which I find the hardest kind.  The big, grasping courage life sometimes requires isn't the difficult kind of courage.  When life sweeps you away and requires that kind of courage, you push ahead and are carried along by adrenaline and momentum.  Obviously, Alexandra has this kind of courage.  She takes over the family farm in her teens after her father's death.  The difficult kind of courage is the small, everyday kind, the kind required to live in ennui, routine, and loneliness.  That, I think, is the courage that allows Alexandra to succeed.  I just wish I had that kind of courage.

I love the people and the places of this story.  This book met so many of my requirements:  likable characters, lovely setting, strong woman lead, thought-provoking ideas, and finally, redemption and hope at the end.  Just reading the words calmed and centered me.  The novel is luminous; the story, the words, they are luminous.  Cather's writing feels like an Aaron Copeland song:  open, expansive, and full of hope and promise.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I didn't find my way to Cather; I was elbowed there with My Antonia as required reading. I think how you get there makes a difference, somehow.

O Pioneers sounds intriguing, however. All that lovely philosophical talk.

Thanks for sharing it.

Here's my latest post.

JoAnn said...

I've only read a few Cather novels (many more on my shelves waiting), but O Pioneers is definitely my favorite. Must read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which has also been on my shelf far too long.

thecuecard said...

So great to hear that O Pioneers is in the same league as My Antonia. I'll definitely be reading it, now that your reviews are reminding me of the power of Cather. I'll put her on my list this year. Keep up the Cather talk!

Vintage Reading said...

Love this post. The best thing about my English literature degree was the America Lit module and discovering Willa Cather. Have you read The Professor's House? I think it is even better than My Antonia.

Vintage Reading said...

Love this post. The best thing about my English literature degree was the America Lit module and discovering Willa Cather. Have you read The Professor's House? I think it is even better than My Antonia.

Amy said...

Deb, I think the time in your life when you read different books and authors also affects your reaction to them. Give Cather another try!

JoAnn, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is definitely different. I'm reading it the same way I read my philosophical/religious books...a bit at a time. It requires a lot of thought.

Susan, I will be back with more Cather talk soon. I'm taking a break right now to read Half of a Yellow Sun. I'm working my way through Adichie's books right now as well as Cather's.

Vintage Reading (sorry I don't remember your name!), I read The Professor's House years ago but don't remember much about it. I'm reading her novels in order now, so I'll come to it again eventually.

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