Willa Cather: “O Pioneers!”

for Amy Young

For many of us, certain books immediately release a flood of memories – where we were when we first read them, friends and relatives who read the books with us. Such is the case for me with Willa Cather’s 1913 novel, O Pioneers!

This wonderful book calls to mind Shepherdstown, West Virginia, almost twenty-five years ago. My new friend Amy and I were sharing book after book, poem after poem, film after film with each other. We’d met in Shepherdstown’s just-opened independent bookstore, Four Seasons Books, where Amy was a sales clerk and I was a customer. Since the beautiful October day that first brought us together, we’d been reveling in our shared love of literature.

So it was inevitable that we’d be plopped in front of Amy’s TV when Jessica Lange’s made-for-TV adaptation of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! premiered as a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. Perhaps the Hallmark branding should have tipped us off. It’s not that the movie was terrible. It’s more that it made us laugh – and O Pioneers! is most certainly not a comedy. Of special note was Lange’s feigned Nebraska accent, the overdone quality of which sent Amy and I into fits of laughter. Every three minutes, it seemed, Lange – who was playing the heroine, Alexandra Bergson – sang the praises of “the land.”

But this nails-on-a-chalkboard television adaptation didn’t diminish our love of Cather or her marvelous novel. Both Amy and I had read a lot of Cather’s work – My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Song of the Lark, My Mortal Enemy, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, and of course, O Pioneers!, which is perhaps the great work of the prairie.

Even if she was a bit tone deaf in her accent, Lange was nevertheless right to emphasize “the land,” for the sheer fact of the land – the huge, sprawling, open, expansive prairie land – is indeed the heart of everything on the Great Plains.

Unlikely as it would be in prairie culture and as unpleasant as it is to her brothers, Alexandra Bergson is the primary architect of her family’s land. It falls to her to take their inherited land and shape it into something robust, fertile, productive, rich. That she does just that is the proof Cather offers that a fully realized female protagonist can be a full-on hero of the story, that she can be identified with the land and bring it to its full fruition.

Ready to read O Pioneers? You can do so for free at Project Gutenberg, but you’ll probably want a hard copy of this magnificent book. And if you like geeking out on literary criticism, then exploring Willa Cather scholarship will yield significant rewards. I especially recommend my friend Janis Stout’s extensive work on Cather. She has written a biography –  Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World – and has edited The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. You might also find her critical study of Cather and Mary Austin interesting: it’s titled Picturing a Different West: Vision, Illustration, and the Tradition of Cather and Austin. Another of my favorites is Judith Fryer’s completely imaginative response to Cather’s work in Felicitous Space, which looks also at the work of Edith Wharton. For more on Cather, check out the earlier StoryWeb post on My Ántonia.

When I think of Willa Cather, I think of my dear friend Amy. What books take you back in time?

Listen:Listen as I read Chapter Two of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! In this scene, the dying patriarch, John Bergson, bequeaths the family land to his daughter, Alexandra. You can follow along here.