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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

O Pioneers !

Willa Cather

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase O Pioneers !

Title: O Pioneers !
Author: Willa Cather
Genre: Novel
Written: 1913
Length: 210 pages
Availability: O Pioneers ! - US
O Pioneers ! (scholarly edition) - US
O Pioneers ! - UK
O Pioneers ! - Canada
Pionniers - France
Le pioniere - Italia
Pioneros - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

A- : a lovely little work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 23/8/2013 WB Gooderham
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/9/1913 .
Vanity Fair . 9/1913 Henry Brinsley

  From the Reviews:
  • "The prose is clear and -- as befitting the subject matter -- pared down to often brutal effect. (...) In fact, at times this landscape threatens to overwhelm the novel itself, dwarfing its protagonists so that characterisation appears thin, and tragic events are rendered as almost incidental. But then the reader is pulled up short by a flash of lyricism, as Cather allows a glimpse into the depths of emotion that lie beneath this deceptively simple surface." - WB Gooderham, The Guardian

  • "Miss Cather has written a good story, we hasten to assure the reader who cares for good stories, but she has achieved something even finer. Through a direct, human tale of love and struggle and attainment, a tale that is American in the best sense of the word, there runs a thread of symbolism. It is practically a novel without a hero." - The New York Times Book Review

  • "Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers! (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist. And yet by the end of the book, something has happened in the reader's mind that leaves him grateful. (...) (T)he secret of this is the persistence throughout of a single fine quality of the author (...) — her extraordinary sincerity." - Henry Brinsley, Vanity Fair

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       O Pioneers ! begins: "One January day, thirty years ago", and while it is that present that makes the strongest first impression -- the bitter cold, the haphazard settlement -- the mention that this account is retrospective, from three decades on, is also significant. It's not otherwise immediately apparent, given the immediacy of the narrative -- especially in that icy first chapter --, but O Pioneers ! is a novel of growth and settlement, the characters successfully figuring out how to make the best of the land -- while still struggling with other basics of human life and emotion. The story repeatedly jumps ahead years from one chapter to the next -- yet the most significant relationships are already presented, in their essence, in these opening pages.
       There is Alexandra Bergson and Carl Linstrum, who live on neighboring farms, and here:

The light fell upon the two sad young faces that were turned mutely toward it: upon the eyes of the girl, who seemed to be looking with such anguished perplexity into the future; upon the sombre eyes of the boy, who seemed already to be looking into the past.
       And there is Alexandra's still very young brother, Emil -- whose cat Carl retrieves in the opening scenes -- and the "little Bohemian girl, Marie Tovesky" he befriends, who charms all the locals.
       This area in Nebraska has drawn many immigrants who uneasily try to establish a foothold on land they quite literally don't understand, not knowing how to work it or what crops work best there. Many who have settled here don't even speak English, and conversation is often still in Swedish, Norwegian, or Czech; the land itself also defeats many of them, some returning to their homelands, others to cities near and far. The Bergsons came from Sweden, just over a decade before the novel opens, and while the father of the family, John, has made a decent go of it, his time is now up; at forty-six his days are already numbered.
       Alexandra is the sensible child who has long been helping with the running of the farm, while John notes of his two other sons, Lou and Oscar, that they: "were industrious, but he could never teach them to use their heads about their work". (Emil, hardly more than a toddler, is practically of a different generation.)
       On his deathbed, John tells his children: "I want you to keep the land together and to be guided by your sister", with the land to be fairly divided up when the boys marry. Alexandra proves very competent, and in the years that follow makes the right decisions about the land -- purchasing more when they can, expanding their holdings, and planting the right crops. The family struggles, but eventually finds itself well off; eventually Lou and Oscar take their portions and start their own families, but it is Alexandra who makes and gets the most from her land. She also has more in mind for Emil, and can afford to eventually even send him to college.
       The Linstrums don't fare as well, and they give up not long after John Bergson passed away, Carl's father getting a job in St. Louis. Alexandra is sorry to see Carl go; he's been her only real friend -- "we've liked the same things and we've liked them together" -- but they stay in touch, writing to one another.
       Alexandra devotes herself to her land, and Emil -- the one child of the family: "who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil"; she doesn't marry. She lives in comfort and is well-respected, but she's not much for frills and ostentation; the only reason she has some fancier furniture and objects in her home is because she understands that her station demands it: "Her guests like to see about them these reassuring emblems of prosperity". Meanwhile, Marie has married Frank Shabata, and they live on the Linstrums' old property, with both Alexandra and Emil close friends with the irrepressible Marie.
       Carl comes to visit Alexandra, but has not been successful enough that he feels he can court her; indeed, her brothers see him as simply out for the family property and drive him away -- leading also to a rupture between Alexandra and those two brothers. A restless Emil also repeatedly returns to the fold but also makes it out into the wider world, to college and then to Mexico. Marie's husband, meanwhile, works himself up in his jealousy -- not specifically of Emil, but all of Marie's potential suitors -- though Marie remains dutiful, even as she recognizes that she and her husband are ill-matched.
       Oscar at one point claims that: "The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title", but Alexandra can more or less put him and Lou in their place, reminding them that she was the one who made their land what it is (and considerably expanded their holdings), and that if it had been left up to them they would have abandoned it long ago. The two brothers enjoy the fruits of the land, but they are little more than dull farmers; Alexandra is the one who truly tamed it.
       A young Emil can not even imagine Alexandra ever being in love -- "She would n't know how to go about it. The idea !" -- but wise Marie knows better. Alexandra and Carl are clearly meant to be together, but there's not an easy path to reach the point where they can take the obvious step. Still, just how heavily it's all weighed on her over all these decades is clear from the closing scene, when they are finally set to be lastingly together:
     She leaned heavily on his shoulder. "I am tired," she murmured. "I have been very lonely, Carl."
       To reach that point they also must deal with tragedy, a tragedy that comes with the inevitability of classical Greek drama, Frank Shabata working himself up into that blind frenzy that leads to catastrophe.
       One can see much in O Pioneers ! coming, including the fates of the main characters, and Cather struggles some with the remaining pieces in the novel's resolution, after all that must happen has happened; Alexandra seeking out Frank in jail, for example, is intriguing but is also a strange fit by that point. Still, it's a powerful and moving work, with the one couple -- Alexandra and Carl -- so restrained and focused on establishing foundations, for themselves and others rather than dedicating themselves, much earlier, to each other and moving forward from there, while the other couple, ebullient Marie and similarly spirited Emil, fight against the inevitable. Cather is strong in her presentation of the secondary characters, including primal Ivar, but only Frank feels truly fully realized in the narrative. Others, such as Lou and Oscar, fade from the scene and story, or are only given smaller parts, such as the mother -- neatly and quite presented and profiled, but also quickly dispensed with.
       A French novel of these times would have fleshed out so much more of the story, and presented it at far greater length -- O Pioneers ! is a quite short, if not skeletal work -- but then the focus would have also been even more on the characters themselves. Cather is very good on character -- even as we learn relatively little about them, the central ones come to life in her vivid presentation -- but then for her the novel clearly is also very much about the land. As she has Alexandra say in the closing scene: "We come and go, but the land is always here", and Cather means, emphatically, to show that with the novel as a whole as well -- and most of her characters do, indeed, feel much less solid and permanent than the land itself. (The most solid are those who are closest to the land -- Alexandra, above all.)
       Quite simple, and perhaps too obvious in its plotting, O Pioneers ! is quite artfully presented and a lovely work, Cather already showing formidable command of both form and style.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 June 2022

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O Pioneers !: Reviews: Willa Cather: Books about Willa Cather under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Willa Cather lived 1873 to 1947.

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© 2022 the complete review

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