Today I’m returning a library copy of “One of Ours” by Willa Cather, her novel of Claude Wheeler, the Nebraska farmboy who joins the Army in World War One.
This novel earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. Some observers have noted that the Pulitzer was awarded for this novel when it ought to have been given instead to “O Pioneers!” or “My Antonia,” earlier novels with a Nebraska setting.
I chose “One of Ours” because I recently visited the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, a remarkable place. I tend to have a short attention span in museums, but was held intellectual captive by this place for a good four hours. I’ve also set reading or re-reading books by Nebraska authors as one of my Reading Resolutions for 2011.
I’ll try not to give too much away about the novel in terms of its plot. In terms of character, Claude Wheeler suffers from a combination of a desire for a wonderful life, an intellectual life, a gracious life, a life bigger than the Wheeler farm, with an infuriating lack of grace in his own social skills. When he’s confused among people, he blushes and becomes angry. His marriage isn’t satisfactory. He catches a glimpse of the life he wants when he attends college in Lincoln, but then is caught in his father’s snare that returns him to the responsibility of the farm.
In many ways his time in Europe before he actually enters the trenches of the war re-ignites his passion for something bigger. He meets new people and sees how they live. He senses a return to excitement in his life. His troops respond to his leadership.
Cather is such a beloved and well-known Nebraska author that I’m reluctant to criticize her work. I will say that the book seems a little like Claude–a glimpse of something grand that is held back by a lack of grace. Yet I love Claude, as I still love this novel, for that romantic hope for something beyond what seems ordinary and everyday.