One Of Ours / Willa Cather

Following on the heels on My Antonia (1918), One Of Ours (1922) was Willa Cather’s fifth novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1923. It tells the story of Claude Wheeler, the son of a prosperous Nebraskan farmer. While his father expects him to remain on the farm, Claude dreams of escaping the drudgery of rural life to find his greater purpose. Not that he knows what that might be. In this pursuit and against his father’s wishes, he enrolls in the State University. Before Claude can complete this education, his father purchases another property and calls his son home to manage the family farm. Despite being disappointed and dissatisfied, Claude decides to put aside his dreams and marry a childhood friend. However, the marriage does not prove to be a happy one.

All of this takes place while the Great War is raging in Europe. And it is that war that rescues Claude from the cul-de-sac he finds himself in. With America’s entry into the conflict, he sees it as an avenue to escape. In spite of an influenza outbreak on the troop ship taking him across the Atlantic and the hardships and dangers encountered on the battlefield, Claude finds himself feeling reborn. He revels in the freedom of new experiences and responsibilities. Best of all, his world view expands as he is introduced to new cultures.

In reading this novel I was reminded of the World War I song, How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?). Riffing on the same theme, Cather shows how Claude, and many young men at the time, used the War as an escape from the predictability and restrictions of rural life. One Of Ours is often classed as a war story. However, only the book’s final quarter focuses on Claude’s enlistment and army experiences. For the majority of the novel, Cather concentrates on what she did best as a writer – she captures the rhythm and majesty of farm life in Nebraska, vividly bringing to life its landscape and disparate cultures.

Throughout his failed marriage and his constant struggle to find his life’s purpose, Claude Wheeler remains an idealist and a romantic, even when confronted by the War’s devastation in Europe. He embodies the spirit of the time as its young adults began to rebel agains the strict regimentation imposed upon them by family and community. Thanks to the advent of the automobile, rural inhabitants were just beginning to venture into distant cities and countries. While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I thought the portion set in Nebraska to be the best part of the story.

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