Sunday, December 13, 2015

O Pioneers!

O Pioneers!
by Willa Cather
read: 2015

Immigration is something of a hot issue in the news, so it is interesting to read a novel like O Pioneers! which deals with new immigrants from groups that are now long-established. The Bergson family are Swedish-Americans that inhabit frontier Nebraska in the early 1900's, but they still have memories and traditions from their homeland. The French, Swedish, and Romanian immigrants of the time and place all have their own culture but are working together to make it in a strange, new America. It's a nice reminder that we were all aliens here once.

One of the themes of the novel is the relationship between mankind and nature. Protagonist Alexandra says at one point, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years." The first part of that quote is the novel's most famous, but I think the second part is just as interesting, implying that in many ways people are hardly different from birds. The land provides sustenance for Alexandra and her family, and her life is inextricably tied to the land, but she wants her younger brother Emil to be able to transcend an agricultural existence and experience more of the world.

Cather's empathetic, all-seeing eye reminds me of Faulkner or Toni Morrison, She has sympathy even for those who do wrong, and seeks to explain rather than condemn.