O Pioneers / Willa Cather

Published in 1913, this was Willa Cather’s second novel and the one that brought her to the attention of the reading public.  Set in the Great Plains of Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century, it tells the story of Alexandra Bergson.  When the reader is first introduced to Alexandra as a teenage girl, she is mature beyond her years, with a passionate belief in the future fertility of Nebraska’s wind blasted prairies.  This is at a time when many of the settlers are calling it quits, and even her dying father has failed to make a profit out of the soil.  But he too has a deep faith in the land and encourages his daughter to continue running the farm after his death.  He also gets his two older sons to agree to follow her advice.  At the end of the book’s first part, Alexandra’s keen business sense has her taking on more debt to acquire additional farmland.   The story then jumps ahead sixteen years to a much different time period.  Communities have now sprung up around large, successful farmsteads.  Alexandra and her family have become wealthy from the land’s increasingly heavy yields.  Yet her family’s success story is also darkened by personal loss.  The novel is imbued with the spirit of democratic utopianism, and is a paean to the Swedish and German pioneers who settled this harsh environment, turning it into America’s breadbasket.  In 1913, few authors were writing about these immigrants.  Cather’s novel captures the spirit of the times and its people.  In small scale, Cather examines the massive social and economic transformations that took place following the settling of the prairies.   But what makes this story special is its strong, independent lead character.  Alexandra is a heroine who is not only the equal of the men portrayed, she stands out as a leader in her community.

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