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:

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!

Book Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (Classics Club Spin #30)

Title: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: 1945
Length: 181 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live “up the hill” in the more respectable area of town. The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short vignettes that introduce us to various denizens of the Row, most of whom are not directly connected with the central story. These vignettes are often characterized by direct or indirect reference to extreme violence: suicides, corpses, and the cruelty of the natural world.

The “story” of Cannery Row follows the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row.

Cannery Row is my summer 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and I’ll admit that I felt a bit ambivalent when my spin landed on this book. I’ve had a copy of Cannery Row on my shelf for a few years now and have been wanting to read more Steinbeck, but meanwhile, my book group read Tortilla Flat last year, and that seemed like enough for the time being!

Still, once I got started, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Steinbeck’s descriptions and unique way with words.

In Cannery Row, as the synopsis above states, there really isn’t much of a plot. Instead, it’s a series of vignettes and moments that capture the spirit of a time and place. As the author explains in the very first passage of the books:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

I read that first line, and I was hooked!

It continues:

Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories, and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

If there is a main character in Cannery Row, I suppose it might be Mack:

Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

A less generous writer might describe Mack and his group as bums, but Steinbeck instead presents them as well-intentioned pranksters whose endeavors usually go sideways, but who never mean anyone any harm. They drink and go on adventures, and are admirers of Doc, who runs Western Biological, the laboratory and business where he collects, studies, and sells the specimens he finds along the shores and in the tidepools of Monterey Bay and beyond.

Others in the neighborhood include the Bear Flag Restaurant, which is actually a popular brothel run by the kind madam Dora, and Lee Chong’s store, where pretty much anything can be found at any time of year. Then there’s the couple who turned an abandoned cannery boiler in a vacant lot into a makeshift house, and then became landlords by renting out the random pipes on the lot as sleeping shelters for the various men needing a roof over their heads.

The characters interact through business deals and random conversations and unbalanced bargains. An ongoing thread in the book is Mack’s desire to throw a party for Doc to show him how much he and the boys appreciate him. Let’s just say that it does not go as planned — before the night is out, much of Doc’s home and lab is destroyed, and there are frogs everywhere! The gang’s search for frogs is another very funny saga, and even results in a brand-new Cannery Row economy based on the value of frog futures.

Of course, some pieces of Steinbeck’s writing don’t age well. He uses racial terms that would be unacceptable today (“Wops and Chinamen and Polaks”), although to be fair, I think he’s attempting to describe the variety of the people of Monterey — he isn’t being derogatory (although I was uncomfortable with how he writes Lee Chong’s dialogue; perhaps not considered out-of-bounds in the 1940s, but certainly not okay today).

I do love Steinbeck’s writing. He can be beautifully descriptive, and also terribly funny just by virtue of the words he uses:

He can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.

Describing a changing moment in a tidepool:

A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again.

Small moments made me laugh:

“Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.”

“What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded.

“He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat — so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”

And then there’s the time when Mack and the boys manage to restore an old truck just enough to get it running, but with small problems, like the fact that it can only make it up a hill if they go in reverse.

I am truly glad that I read Cannery Row, and I so appreciate the Classics Club Spin challenge that got me to finally take the book off the shelf and give it a try.

I would like to read more by John Steinbeck in the future. So far, besides Cannery Row, I’ve read East of Eden and Of Mice and Men (both very, very long ago) and Tortilla Flat, and I know I should read The Grapes of Wrath at some point too.

Do you have any favorite Steinbeck books? Please let me know if you have recommendations!

Today’s Cannery Row in Monterey

Who knew? There was a movie of Cannery Row released in the 1980s!

Shelf Control #251: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Author: Agatha Christie
Published: 1920
Length: 208 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Who poisoned the wealthy Emily Inglethorp and how did the murderer penetrate and escape from her locked bedroom? Suspects abound in the quaint village of Styles St. Mary—from the heiress’s fawning new husband to her two stepsons, her volatile housekeeper, and a pretty nurse who works in a hospital dispensary.

With impeccable timing, and making his unforgettable debut, the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on the case.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a Kindle edition a couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

After reading the excellent new novel by Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, my interest in Agatha Christie is definitely piqued! I’ve only read one of her books so far, but I’ve been intending to read more.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Agatha Christie’s first published novel, and it’s also the book where she introduced Hercule Poirot. I feel like this would be a great starting place for me, and if I enjoy it (as I suspect I will), I can pick and choose more of her works to read.

Are you an Agatha Christie fan? Any recommendations on which books to read? Particular favorites?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #88: I Capture The Castle

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: I Capture the Castle
Author: Dodie Smith
Published: 1948
Length: 343 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has “captured the castle”– and the heart of the reader– in one of literature’s most enchanting entertainments.

How I got it:

I don’t even remember — but I suspect I picked up a copy at one of our library’s big books sales (just like at least 50% of the books on my shelves)

When I got it:

Sometime within the last five years or so, I believe.

Why I want to read it:

This is one of those books that everyone tells you to read. It’s supposed to be funny and charming and quirky, and I’ve heard it described as a modern classic. As a bonus reason for reading it, I’m participating in an acrostic challenge with my book club and I’m missing a title that starts with the letter I — so I guess I just have to read this one before the end of the year!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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