Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (Classics Club Spin #32)

Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Publication date: 1913
Length: 159 pages (Kindle edition)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

And from Wikipedia:

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by American author Willa Cather, written while she was living in New York. It was her second published novel. The title is a reference to a poem by Walt Whitman entitled “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” from Leaves of Grass (1855).

O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American immigrants in the farm country near the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland when her father dies, and she devotes her life to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time when many other immigrant families are giving up and leaving the prairie. The novel is also concerned with two romantic relationships, one between Alexandra and family friend Carl Linstrum and the other between Alexandra’s brother Emil and the married Marie Shabata.

O Pioneers! is my most recent Classics Club Spin book, and once again, it’s been a great experience getting that little push to read a book that I might have missed out on otherwise.

Prior to O Pioneers!, the only work of Willa Cather’s that I’ve read was My Antonia, which I read once during high school and again more recently when I came across a copy at a library sale. I loved Cather’s writing style and the sense of beauty that comes through her descriptive passages, and I’ve always meant to seek out more of her books.

O Pioneers! centers on Alexandra Bergson, whom we first meet as a young woman. From the earliest chapters, we understand that she’s the backbone of her family. Her parents arrived on the Nebraska plains years earlier as immigrants, struggling to establish a home and a livelihood in harsh conditions. As the book opens, Alexandra’s father is dying. While she has three brothers — two teens and five-year-old Emil — her father’s dying instructions are clear:

“Boys,” said the father wearily, “I want you to keep the land together and to be guided by your sister… I want no quarrels among my children, and so long as there is one house there must be one head. Alexandra is the oldest, and she knows my wishes. She will do the best she can. If she makes mistakes, she will not make so many as I have made.”

As the book continues, we see Alexandra doing what no one else in the family can. She keeps the farm going, but not only that — she’s determined to do more than scratch by. She learns, thinks, and grows, and despite her brothers’ objection to what they see as risky ventures, Alexandra uses her wits and strategic planning to acquire more land, invest, and ultimately succeed in becoming one of the best established farmers and landowners in the region.

Of course, the older brothers aren’t always content to abide by Alexandra’s decisions. Rather dull-minded and resentful of hard work, they still uphold the manly tradition of being sexist jerks when it comes to their sister:

Oscar reinforced his brother, his mind fixed on the one point he could see. “The property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work.” Alexandra looked from one to the other, her eyes full of indignation. She had been impatient before, but now she was beginning to feel angry. “And what about my work?” she asked in an unsteady voice.


Lou turned to Oscar. “That’s the woman of it; if she tells you to put in a crop, she thinks she’s put it in. It makes women conceited to meddle in business.”

Success takes a toll, as Alexandra remains largely alone. She has friends and neighbors and community, and while she seems content with her life, she’s never pursued romantic love of any sort. As she moves through her adult years, she’s devoted to Emil, now a young man, envisioning herself making a future and inheritance for him. Emil, though, like many young people raised on the plains, doesn’t necessarily want a life as a farmer — he attends college, travels, and seems to have a myriad of options available to him. Ultimately, though, a passionate love affair threatens his and Alexandra’s dreams for his future.

O Pioneers! covers about 20 years of the family’s lives, and we see how time changes them all. Through it all, Alexandra remains the steady, devoted head of the family and keeper of the land, and it’s only a tragedy near the end of the story that forces more extreme change upon her.

The writing in O Pioneers! is simply lovely. Willa Cather’s words are spare, but evocative. From her descriptions of the land itself to her illustration of the characters’ lives and thoughts, the words she uses bring the people and place to life.

ONE JANUARY DAY, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces.

He best expressed his preference for his wild homestead by saying that his Bible seemed truer to him there. If one stood in the doorway of his cave, and looked off at the rough land, the smiling sky, the curly grass white in the hot sunlight; if one listened to the rapturous song of the lark, the drumming of the quail, the burr of the locust against that vast silence, one understood what Ivar meant.

A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.

But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

The dawn in the east looked like the light from some great fire that was burning under the edge of the world.

One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.

Other versions of O Pioneers!:

As far as I could discover, there’s been just one O Pioneers! film adaptation — a 1992 made-for-TV movie starring Jessica Lange and David Strathairn. I have no idea if it’s easily available, but I’d love to check it out!

Wrapping it all up:

I’m so happy to have finally read this beautiful, powerful book. Many thanks to the Classics Club for inspiring me to read O Pioneers! and other classics!

Can’t wait for the next CCSpin!

14 thoughts on “Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (Classics Club Spin #32)

  1. I had to read O! Pioneers so many times for school…. That’s what comes from living in Nebraska, though. I grew up not terribly far from where Hanover is meant to be, so the descriptions of the land are close to home, but at the same time, knowing the history of the area where the native Pawnee and Lakota peoples were nearly wiped out to make it easier for Europeans to move in makes it harder to appreciate the story. It’s one of those literary balancing acts a reader has to perform, I guess, to enjoy older works of literature.

    • Very true, I struggle to reconcile reading classics as literature with understanding what’s included or ignored in the telling. Native populations get no mention at all in this story. I tried to read it for what it is… but that’s hard.

  2. Lovely review! The quotes are wonderful and have reminded me how much I enjoyed her writing in My Antonia, the only book of hers I’ve read. I shall have to put this one on my list!

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