O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

John Bergson emigrated from Sweden with his family in the 1870s. They settled in Nebraska where there were many other European migrant communities – German, Bohemian, Norwegian. After several tough years farming on The Divide, struggling against poor crops & bad weather, John is dying. He leaves the direction of the farm’s future to his daughter, Alexandra, a capable young woman who has the vision that is lacking in her two brothers, Lou & Oscar. We first see Alexandra in the role that will become familiar – taking charge of a situation. She comforts her youngest brother, Emil, when his kitten is chased up a pole outside the general store & asks her friend, Carl Linstrum, to rescue it. She is calm & sensible, dismissive of the admiration of a passer-by & preoccupied by her father’s illness. Lou & Oscar are good workers but unimaginative. They agree with their father’s last wish, that Alexandra will run the farm. After John’s death, there are several hard years but Alexandra is determined to keep the land they have & she convinces her brothers to take out a mortgage to buy more land when other farmers, including their neighbours the Linstrums, are selling out.

Sixteen years later, Alexandra’s determination has paid off. She is the owner of a flourishing farm, employing farmhands & training young Swedish girls as servants. Lou & Oscar are married & settled on their own farms with their families. Alexandra is determined to send Emil to college, although Lou & Oscar, unimaginative as ever, can’t see the point. Alexandra’s neighbour, Marie Shabata, is an attractive, vivacious young woman who married a handsome man who soon turned surly & unpredictable. Her childhood friendship with Emil has continued & she admires Alexandra’s calm efficiency at the head of her household.

Alexandra herself has changed very little. Her figure is fuller and she has more color. She seems sunnier and more vigorous than she did as a young girl. But she still has the same calmness and deliberation of manner, the same clear eyes, and she still wears her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like on of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden. Her face is always tanned in summer, for her sunbonnet is oftener on her arm than on her head. But where her collar falls away from her neck, or where her sleeves are pushed back from her wrist, the skin is of such smoothness and whiteness as none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself.

Alexandra is pleased when Carl Linstrum returns to The Divide after years away. Carl has always cared for her & his visit soothes the loneliness of her life. Lou & Oscar accuse Alexandra of impropriety & think Carl is after Alexandra’s money (or, more accurately, their own children’s inheritance). This causes a breach between Alexandra & her brothers & Carl leaves to seek his fortune in Alaska without any definite understanding between himself & Alexandra. Emil’s love for Marie seems hopeless & he decides to leave as well.

O Pioneers! was Willa Cather’s second novel & is considered one of the greatest American regional novels. Cather admired the work of Sarah Orne Jewett (who had encouraged her to write) & her influence is very evident in the glorious descriptions of the natural world & the landscape. Cather grew up in Nebraska &, in the portraits of the farmers & their families, she pays tribute to the women especially that she saw around her. In some ways, O Pioneers! was her true first novel as she later wrote when comparing it to her actual first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, about a young engineer & set mostly in London.

… I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. I found it a much more absorbing occupation than writing Alexander’s Bridge, a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or “inventing”; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time.
(from My First Novels – There Were Two, The Colophon 1931)

O Pioneers! was unusual (it was published in 1913) as the popular novels of the time were the society or drawing room novels of masters like Edith Wharton & Henry James. Willa Cather’s greatest novels & stories are set in Nebraska where she grew up & in New Mexico & other places where she travelled in later life. She was carrying on the tradition of writers like Jewett & Mary Wilkins Freeman in focusing on the lives of rural communities, often immigrant communities. Drawing on her childhood memories & the nostalgic affection she felt for the people & the times is one of the strengths of her work.

Alexandra is such a wonderful character. Calm, sensible, intelligent, she dominates the narrative as she dominates her family. She’s like a medieval queen or great heiress, providing for her family, caring for her employees & treating them well but finding herself lonely in her lofty position. She also has her charities, from old Ivar, the strange old man who goes barefoot & has strange visions but has a canny common sense when it comes to farming to old Mrs Lee, Lou’s mother-in-law, who looks forward all year to her visit to Alexandra where she can wear her comfortable clothes & tell all the old stories from her homeland that her daughter is too sophisticated to care about. Alexandra’s competence leaves her feeling isolated & lonely, with only her old friendship with Carl to comfort her. Even Emil expects her to always be there, never changing, while he sets off to Mexico for adventures or is absorbed in his own thoughts of his hopeless love.  

O Pioneers! is a quiet book about determination & perseverance. The big emotions are there although they are hidden under the hard work & social expectations of a tight-knit community. In that same article for The Colophon, Cather writes,

… I did not in the least expect that other people would see anything in a slow-moving story, without “action”. without “humor”, without a “hero”; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards – set in Nebraska, of all places!

& was surprised when it was published. After her third novel, The Song of the Lark, Cather found herself going back to the direction of O Pioneers! with My Ántonia. Her best-loved novels are these stories about pioneering immigrant families & strong women like Alexandra Bergson & Ántonia Shimerda. Thank goodness she took that direction rather than any other.

The Octopus – Frank Norris

The Octopus is the story of the conflict between wheat farmers & the railroads in California in the 1880s. If, like me, you thought that this was hardly an exciting premise for a novel, you’d be wrong. The Octopus was chosen by my 19th century bookgroup and, as usual, I’ve been surprised & enthralled by a book I would never have picked up if it hadn’t been on our schedule.

The novel is based on a real story, a dispute between farmers & the railroad that took place at Mussel Slough, California in 1880. Frank Norris is a writer I’ve heard of but hadn’t read. He planned a grand trilogy of novels about wheat. The Octopus tells the story of the wheat farmers, The Pit tells the story of the wheat merchants & is set in Chicago. He planned a third novel set in Europe where the wheat was sold & marketed. Only The Octopus & The Pit were written as Norris died suddenly at the age of only 32 of a ruptured appendix & kidney failure.

California in the late 1800s was the last vestige of the American West. The gold rushes of the 1850s had led to speculation in other commodities. Wheat was one of them & the protagonists of The Octopus are wheat farmers & their families. Chief among them is Magnus Derrick, known as the Governor, who made a fortune from gold & is set on doing the same with wheat. His ranch is Los Muertos & he runs it with his son, Harran. His other son, Lyman, is a lawyer & lives in town. One of Derrick’s tenant farmers is a German immigrant, Hooven, who lives with his wife & daughters.

Presley is a poet, an outsider to the community. He has spent the last months staying with the Derricks after being threatened with consumption. He’s a Romantic who observes events with interest & wants to write an epic about the West. In the first chapter of the book he is cycling around the district, ostensibly to pick up the mail for Mrs Derrick. On his journey, he meets all the main protagonists & we get a feel for the country & the way of life. Presley stays on the outside, observing events, wanting to help but powerless to become involved. At the railroad, he meets Dyke, an engineer, working for the Pacific & South Western Railroad. Dyke is a widower, living with his mother & daughter, Sidney. Dyke has just quit his job after a dispute over pay & plans to grow hops with his brother. The power of the railroad to set freight charges will ultimately destroy Dyke & lead him to take a terrible revenge.

Buck Annixter farms at Quien Sabe. Annixter is a rough, crochety man who is tough on his workers & spends his free time reading David Copperfield & eating prunes for his digestion.. He has few friends & is wary of involving himself with women. Nevertheless, he is attracted to Hilma Tree who works in his dairy. Unfortunately he has no idea how to court her. He & Presley are friends although they are opposites in ambition & temperament. Vanamee is a wanderer. Currently a shepherd working for the Seed ranch, he & Presley meet infrequently but always with pleasure. Vanamee’s life has been blighted by the rape of his lover, Angele, seventeen years before. She subsequently died in childbirth & her rapist was never caught. Vanamee periodically returns to the Mission of San Juan de Guadalajara to visit his friend, Father Sarria, who knows his story.

The ranchers don’t own their land. They were permitted to take up the land for free by the railroad company with a promise of being able to buy the land in the future at a nominal price. The farmers have improved the land & are keen to buy it. However, the Railroad has now decided that they will charge much more than the original amount per acre. As the ranchers have no legal basis for their case other than an ambiguously worded agreement, they’re trapped on land that they’ve improved but can’t sell or buy. However, their relationship to the land is, in some ways, as exploitative as the Railroad’s. They have no feeling for the land but only for what they can get out of it. They will exhaust the land growing wheat as they exhausted the gold mines in the 1850s & then move on to the next opportunity.

The Railroad is the octopus of the title. Its tentacles reach out to encompass everything from the title to the ranchers land to the cost of freighting their materials & crops & its power is absolute. The Railroad, represented by S Behrman, is said to have bought the co-operation of the members of the Railroad Commission that sets the freight rates among other things. The ranchers form a League to fight the Railroad in the courts. They also make the fateful decision to fight the Railroad on their own terms & Magnus Derrick, against his better wishes & his conscience, reluctantly agrees to use bribery to get his son, Lyman, a seat on the Commission. In this way, the ranchers hope to get a favourable decision on the freight costs & the price they will pay for their land. Unfortunately, the courts uphold the Railroad’s case &, when the ranchers refuse to pay the price set by the Railroad, the ranches are put up for sale. The League & the Railroad are set on a collision course that will destroy the lives & livelihoods, of many.

The Octopus is an involving, exciting story that reads like a Western with elements of the industrial novel & mysticism in the story of Vanamee. There are some terrific set pieces – the barn dance on Annixter’s property, the train robbery, the brutal jack-rabbit hunt & the final shootout between the League & the Railroad. The first chapter, where Presley tours the district is repeated at the end of the book in a very different atmosphere. The characters of the men are beautifully drawn although I felt the women, especially Hilma, were quite thin & idealized. The older women, especially Mrs Dyke & Mrs Hooven, were much more believable & even more at the mercy of events than their men as they had no ability to do anything to help or hinder their fate. One of the main characters of the book is the wheat itself & what it stands for. It’s a symbol of progress & wealth, just as the railroad is & Norris often capitalizes the word, Wheat, as though it really were one of the characters,

And there before him (Presley), mile after mile, illimitable, covering the earth from horizon to horizon, lay the Wheat. The growth, now many days old, was already high from the ground. There it lay, a vast, silent ocean, shimmering a pallid green under the moon and under the stars; a mighty force, the strength of nations,the life of the world. … To Presley’s mind, the scene in the room he had just left dwindled to paltry insignificance before this sight. Ah, yes, the Wheat – it was over this that the Railroad, the ranches, the traitor false to his trust, all the members of an obscure conspiracy, were wrangling. As if human agency could affect this colossal power! What were these heated, tiny squabbles, this feverish, small bustle of mankind, this minute swarming of the human insect, to the great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself! … Men, Liliputians, gnats in the sunshine, buzzed impudently in their tiny battles, were born, lived through their little day, died, and were forgotten; while the Wheat, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, grew steadily under the night, alone with the stars and with God.

Norris was criticised by reviewers for being so very much on the side of the ranchers but public feeling at the time of the original incidents that inspired the novel was very much against the railroad. He was also compared, both favourably & unfavourably, with Zola, for his naturalistic, often brutal depictions of reality. I can see the similarities to a novel like Germinal, in the portrayal of man against the machine, even though the ranchers ostensibly have more power than the poor miners in Zola’s novel. I would love to read the second novel, The Pit, & also the novel that has been called Norris’s masterpiece, McTeague, which was also based on a true story.

Pigs in Clover – Simon Dawson

Simon Dawson was working as a real estate agent in London when his wife, Debbie, suddenly proposed that they move to Exmoor & run a smallholding. Simon has never lived in the country & hates the outdoors. However, as he had promised to make the move (albeit in a noisy pub when he was half-drunk), he feels obliged to give it a go. The Dawsons sell up in London but Simon has to keep working to make the project financially possible so he lives in a room at his mother’s house & continues working during the week, making the trip to Exmoor every weekend.

Simon’s initial reluctance to make a complete lifestyle change is understandable & the fact that he commutes from London to Exmoor every week means that he finds it harder to become part of the local community. Initially they rent a house with no land but eventually they buy land close to their house & the smallholding begins to take shape. Debbie immediately finds her feet, getting a job as a cook. She convinces a reluctant Simon to keep chickens which they house on a friend’s property in return for looking after her poultry as well. Eventually they have pigs, horses, sheep as well as chickens, ducks, geese & a dog called Dex.

Simon  finds it difficult to reconcile killing & eating animals that he’s grown to love – however reluctant he might have been to have any animals in the first place. From his first horrible attempt at killing a chicken & the day when he has to send his first pigs, Black Bum & Spotty Bum, off to the abattoir, Simon soon decides that rearing animals with kindness so they have a happy life is the only way he can bring himself to eat meat at all. He has to learn to contain his rage at the unfairness of Nature when a hand reared pig dies or a fox kills all the chickens. The Dawsons experience a lot of setbacks, especially financially but, after more than ten years on the land, they know they made the right decision to keep trying to fulfill their dream, even when it would have been easier to give up.

I enjoyed Pigs in Clover with a few reservations. Simon’s relationship with his family seems odd, to say the least. It’s not until halfway through the book that we learn that the estate agency he works in is owned by his mother & brother, neither of whom are ever named. Of course, it could have been their choice to be anonymous but they’re distant, slightly hostile figures all the same. His mother tells him of a reduction in his working hours from full-time to part-time over the phone & finally lets him go altogether in the same way without really having any idea just how finely balanced their finances are or what a devastating effect this will have on their lives. Their one visit to Dorset is a disaster as they just can’t understand what the Dawsons are trying to achieve.

I would also have loved to have heard more of Debbie’s experiences. Alternate chapters about Debbie’s life on her own in Dorset while Simon was in London would have been fascinating. We learnt a lot about Simon’s many near-death experiences with quad bikes, electric fences & rogue sheep & his philosophical tortures over eating the animals he’s grown to love. he even becomes a miserable vegetarian in London because he can’t bear to eat animals that haven’t had a happy life. I wanted to know more about the work Debbie put in to learning butchery & all the ways she made ends meet. They eventually made a modest living through selling their organic produce at farmers markets & online & Simon became a writer with a weekly newspaper column & wrote The Self Sufficiency Bible which led to running courses on what they’d learnt to others wanting to have a go at self sufficiency. They also made a decision to streamline their tasks so they could become self-sufficient without dying of exhaustion. This became even more important once Simon was living full time in Dorset & their relationship began to suffer because they did nothing but work without ever feeling they were getting ahead.

I read Pigs in Clover courtesy of NetGalley.

Country Loving – Cathy Woodman

Stevie Dunsford is an accountant working in London with an enviable lifestyle & a boyfriend who is eager to get married. Then she gets a call from Cecil who works on the family farm in Devon. Stevie’s father has had a stroke & the farm is falling into ruins. The local vet is threatening to prosecute Stevie’s father for neglecting the cattle & he’s involved in a feud with his closest neighbour. Stevie had reluctantly left the farm when she was 18 after her father refused her the opportunity to work with him because she was a girl. He favoured her brother, Ray, who showed little interest in the dairy business & who has since left the farm. Stevie’s estrangement from her father has lasted over ten years & she’s only returned once, for her mother’s funeral. She wasn’t even aware that her father had suffered the stroke. However, she agrees to go home & assess the situation with her boyfriend, Nick.

The situation is even worse than she feared. The local Welfare Officer has given Stevie’s father, Tom, a deadline to sort out Nettlebed Farm but Cecil is elderly & Tom is unable to do much except sit in the kitchen & threaten intruders with a rifle. He’s also not happy & not grateful when Stevie turns up to help. Stevie loves the farm & soon realises that this is what she was meant to do with her life. The mammoth task she’s taken on soon consumes her every thought & her niggling doubts about her relationship with Nick soon become overwhelming. Stevie realises that she was always meant to be a lady farmer rather than an accountant & Nick, who is so very much a townie, just doesn’t fit in. She grits her teeth & tries to ignore her father’s hostility & relies on Cecil & his wife, Mary for support. She also finds the locum vet, Leo, very attractive & although they get off to a bumpy start, their friendship soon looks set to develop into romance.

Stevie’s hard work slowly begins to pay off & she meets the welfare deadlines for the animals. She begins to relax into her role as lady farmer & starts to build bridges with the neighbours & suppliers that her father has antagonized. She also starts to work on a plan to diversify from dairy & put in place a plan for the long term viability of the farm. Her breakup with Nick was difficult but necessary & her slow burning relationship with Leo looks set to take off. Then, a life changing event puts all these plans in jeopardy & Stevie has to make some hard decisions.

Country Loving is a lovely mix of comedy, drama & rural romance. I don’t know if it’s a worldwide trend but there’s been a recent fashion here in Australia for outback romances. the covers are all the same – a young woman, usually blonde with long hair & wearing an Akubra, gazing into the dusty distance with a windmill in the background as you can see here. The setting of Country Loving fits right in to the genre although there’s less of the sunburned country & more West Country lushness about the location. What sets this book apart from many of the other novels about women moving to the country is the depth of knowledge that Cathy Woodman obviously has of farm life & especially veterinary work. Not surprisingly as she started out as a vet & has previously written a series of romantic novels featuring vets. Stevie has a lot of problems to overcome & the rural setting seemed very realistic to me. Her fractured relationship with her father & the difficulties she faced in fitting in to the rural community were certainly not sugar-coated. Stevie realises that the ten years she spent away from the farm have made some things easier but nothing can overcome the need for hard work, tact & a lot of luck when it comes to dealing with the people of Talyton St George.

I read Country Loving courtesy of NetGalley.