Among my 2013 New Year’s resolutions was to re-read Willa Cather. I began by listening to the audiobook of “Song of the Lark” during a road trip to Colorado in July. My trip ended before the book did, and for days I invented errands around town so that I could hear more.
Over the holidays, I took home the scholarly edition of “O Pioneers!” published by the University of Nebraska Press. I just got to it, and experienced one of my favorite things–starting and finishing a novel over one weekend.
Originally published in 1913, “O Pioneers!” centers on Alexandra Bergson, who comes to the great plains of Nebraska when her family arrives from Sweden to homestead. She becomes a prominent and successful farmer in her own right, persuading her brothers to stay with the land in very hard times, eventually enjoying the fruits of their courage and persistence. Although the land itself counts as a restless character, the small circle of people in Alexandra’s orbit creates a whirl of drama. Her college-educated younger brother falls in love with a married woman in the neighborhood. Alexandra’s rekindled friendship with a childhood playmate troubles her stolid older brothers. Tragedy happens.
Two things in particular struck me in this reading. One is Cather’s attention to shaping the various characters, especially the immigrant farmers and families, in ways that confer respect. Second is her use of straightforward language, the voice of a well-spoken and thoughtful narrator, as if one who grew up feeling some affection for all of these people, is telling the story.
Although my own homesteading ancestors grew up in the United States, I feel an automatic kinship with the pioneer story. I can’t read this book without that background hovering. I’m curious how others experience it.
On another personal note, the late Susan J. Rosowski was one of the editors of this scholarly edition, along with Charles W. Mignon. I took one course from Professor Rosowski at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and recall her passion for Cather, as well as her kindness to her students. I don’t quite remember how my late husband and I happened to attend an event at Rosowki’s home when Joan Acocella, a writer for the New Yorker was visiting Nebraska. Acocella’s expertise is dance, but she has developed a passion for Willa Cather. On this evening, Acocella made an informal presentation on the course of Cather’s reputation over the years, deftly weaving social and political history with literary considerations. Acocella eventually wrote a book on the topic, “Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism.” She also wrote a very recent blog piece on the 100th anniversary of “O Pioneers!” (spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book), a readable essay that combines literary passion with muscular writing. Read it. And then go read “O Pioneers!”