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.