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Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

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Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! was written in 1913 and is the first novel of his Great Plains trilogy. Its themes including isolation, love and feminism.

The Bergsons immigrate from Switzerland to Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century. When the patriarch of the family dies, his daughter Alexandra, inherits the farm and devotes her life to making it a viable enterprise at a time when others give up and leave.

I’ve only been recently introduced to the writing of Willa Cather. I believe it was on some “top 100” list (who said they’re lame?) and figured I’ll give it a try.

O Pioneers!  is considered a classic and I can certainly understand why. The writing is outstanding and it has all the makings of the great American novel. The story tells of hard work, wide-eyed innocence towards the future and abundant opportunities, as seen through the eyes of the immigrant class.

The scenery plays a major part in the novel, the lyrical episodes about the pastoral land are sprawling and majestic. As with many other novels, the  harsh and beautiful landscape plays out as another character in the book. The Midwestern prairie which the pioneers labor over is an essential to character development and lies at the heart of the chartacters’ profound understanding of themselves and life.

The parts that deal with people, by contrast, are concise and spare, much like the personalities of those who work the arid land. Cather manages to convey the sense of community despite the vastness of the land, a testament to her writing skills and ability to personalize a storyline.

While I loved the descriptions and prose, the dialog seemed a bit stilted; it just didn’t seem as if that’s how the characters would speak, especially when among friends and relatives. However, the storyline is exemplary and the characterization amazing; I found myself caring about the people in the story and breathlessly waiting to find out what will happen to them.

Buy this book in paper or free in electronic (Kindle) format.


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