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: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (Classics Club Spin #31)

Title: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Mark Twain
Publication date: 1889
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

One of the greatest satires in American literature, Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ begins when Hank Morgan, a skilled mechanic in a nineteenth-century New England arms factory, is struck on the head during a quarrel and awakens to find himself among the knights and magicians of King Arthur’s Camelot. The ‘Yankee’ vows brashly to “boss the whole country inside of three weeks” and embarks on an ambitious plan to modernize Camelot with 19th c. industrial inventions like electricity and gunfire. It isn’t long before all hell breaks loose!

Written in 1889, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is one of literature’s first genre mash-ups and one of the first works to feature time travel. It is one of the best known Twain stories, and also one of his most unique. Twain uses the work to launch a social commentary on contemporary society, a thinly veiled critique of the contemporary times despite the Old World setting.

While the dark pessimism that would fully blossom in Twain’s later works can be discerned in ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ‘ the novel will nevertheless be remembered primarily for its wild leaps of imagination, brilliant wit, and entertaining storytelling.

And from Wikipedia:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an 1889 novel by American humorist and writer Mark Twain. The book was originally titled A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Some early editions are titled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur.

In the book, a Yankee engineer from Connecticut named Hank Morgan receives a severe blow to the head and is somehow transported in time and space to England during the reign of King Arthur. After some initial confusion and his capture by one of Arthur’s knights, Hank realizes that he is actually in the past, and he uses his knowledge to make people believe that he is a powerful magician. He attempts to modernize the past in order to make people’s lives better, but in the end he is unable to prevent the death of Arthur and an interdict against him by the Catholic Church of the time, which grows fearful of his power.

Twain wrote the book as a burlesque of Romantic notions of chivalry after being inspired by a dream in which he was a knight himself, severely inconvenienced by the weight and cumbersome nature of his armor. It is a satire of feudalism and monarchy that also celebrates homespun ingenuity and democratic values while questioning the ideals of capitalism and outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. It is among several works by Twain and his contemporaries that mark the transition from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era of socioeconomic discourse. It is often cited as a formative example of the time travel genre.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is my fall 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and once again, I’m delighted that the CCSpin has given me reason to finally read a classic that I might never have considered otherwise.

Way back in my middle school days, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were both required reading, and that was about it in terms of my experience with Mark Twain. Still, I’d been more or less familiar with the general plot of this book as well as The Prince and the Pauper, which have both been adapted and retold in countless formats over the years.

1889 frontispiece by Daniel Carter Beard, restored

In Connecticut Yankee, a “modern” man of the 1880s finds himself transported back in time to the world of King Arthur. Being a proud Yankee, our narrator isn’t content to just find a way to fit in and survive, but instead decides to bring 19th century civilization to life a full thirteen centuries early.

First, seeing the power that Merlin holds over King Arthur and his court, the narrator proclaims himself to be an even greater magician, and uses his 19th century scientific knowledge to create supposed miracles — for example, using dynamite and fireworks — to astound and frighten everyone there. Quickly, he is given the title of “the Boss”, second only to Arthur himself in power and authority.

From there, the Boss begins a plan to introduce modern technology to the kingdom, instituting factories, newspapers, electricity, schools, currency, and more. Determined to improve health and sanitation, he introduces soap, then has the knights roam the countryside carrying advertising shingles to promote it! Of course, obstacles arise, and the Boss finds himself challenged and inconvenienced many times throughout his adventures, but his knowledge of unknown mechanics, science, and communication techniques help him triumph, again and again.

The writing in Connecticut Yankee is sly, sardonic, and often outright funny. From the earliest chapters, I was charmed and entertained, as in this encounter with a young boy as the narrator enters the court at Camelot:

He arrived, looked me over with a smiling and impudent curiosity; said he had come for me, and informed me that he was a page.

“Go ‘long,” I said, “you ain’t more than a paragraph.”

Mark Twain satirizes and skewers concepts of class throughout the book, as the main character — while appreciative of Arthur himself — is determined to do away with nobility, chivalry, and all the inherent injustices of a societal order that holds some people to be better than others.

Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle-bow in his hand, who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him – why, certainly he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair – but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash also.

The application of justice, as portrayed in this book, is particularly brutal, and there’s one especially heartbreaking scene of a young desperate mother’s punishment that’s truly haunting.

Still, even during scenes of great violence or inhumanity, Twain’s humor shines through. Even the more serious situations are lightened by his skill with words, and I couldn’t help laughing at so many of the small little lines and comments that are thrown in throughout the story.

His head was an hour-glass; it could stow an idea, but it had to do it a grain at a time, not the whole idea at once.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an early example of a time-travel novel, and while the genre has certainly changed over the years, it’s a fun look at the concept. Mark Twain does it well, showing both the influence of the 19th century on Arthurian times and offering a solid set of circumstances to explain why history continue on as expected.

There have been many, many movie and TV adaptations of this story over the years, including a musical version from 1949 starring Bing Crosby, a 1989 TV movie starring Keshia Knight-Pulliam, and a really strange-looking 1995 movie called A Young Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, starring Michael York as Merlin and featuring a guitar-playing teen in the lead role.

I’d decided to read Connecticut Yankee via the Serial Reader app — which I did — but instead of sticking to just one 10-minute installment per day, I got caught up in the story and finished well ahead of the October 30th deadline. I expected to be interested in the story, but I didn’t realize just how entertaining it would turn out to be.

I’m really glad to have read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’m not sure that I’d pick up more Mark Twain immediately, but I think at some point, I’ll want to read more of his works, perhaps venturing into some of his non-fiction writing.

Are you a Mark Twain fan? Which of his books would you recommend?

Once again, I’m so happy that I decided to participate in the Classics Club Spin! Looking forward to the next one!

Shelf Control #121: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

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!

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Title: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Published: 1945
Length: 181 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

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.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy several years ago, after hearing a favorite author mention this book as one that really inspired him as a writer.

Why I want to read it:

To put it simply — I just haven’t read enough Steinbeck, and it’s about time for me to do something about that. I’ve read East of Eden and Of Mice and Men, but both were ages ago, and I really feel like I should try more of his books. Maybe I’ll start with some of his shorter fiction, like this one, and work my way up to Grapes of Wrath!

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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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