Monday, January 12, 2009

O Pioneers!

Overall, I enjoyed O Pioneers!, and I think Cather may become a new favorite. I like her style and that she writes about the prairie from the perspective of someone who knew and obviously loved this land. Her descriptions of this familiar landscape and the plants, animals, and people which inhabit(ed) it really endeared her to me. It's ridiculous the thrill I got at reading the mention of some of my favorite wildflowers such as ironweed and snow on the mountain or a perfect picture painted in words of something I'm likely to see on a walk or drive near my home.

In addition to painting such a beautiful and accurate backdrop for her story, Cather populated it with characters so full, rich, and real that I felt I knew them. The main character of the story is Alexandra, a Norwegian immigrant who is left with great responsibility at a young age and who not only bears that weight but is able to prosper under it, if at some personal cost. Her strength and determination are inspiring, yet the reader is allowed a glimpse into how she might have chosen differently for herself had her circumstances been different.

This glimpse into what Alexandra may have chosen made me wonder what she could have done differently to allow for both her own personal desires and accomplishing what she felt was her duty. The same question could be asked about Marie Shabata, the beautiful, young Bohemian girl so unhappy in her marriage to a cruel husband but so determined to be a good Catholic and live joyfully and share that joy with others, including her husband. It made me a little angry that they did not do what it was so clear to me they should have done to secure their own happinesses, even when their sacrificing happiness did nothing to secure that of others. Of course, we see this often enough in real life. Good fiction always has some truth in it, and when we reflect upon it we may find insight into our own lives or those close to us.

It did make me angry that Alexandra did not make a greater effort to understand Marie who had been such a friend to her but rather was too forgiving with someone who did not deserve it as much. This was her one great failing and the thing I liked least about this book, even above any tragic events in the story. Yet, in some way I do find it admirable that Alexandra was able to forgive the unforgivable, knowing that a hard and bitter heart would not undo the wrong that had been done. Perhaps we are meant to learn from both the good and bad in Alexandra's handling of the situation and her feelings surrounding it.

The strength of this novel, for me, lies more in the beautifully descriptive narrative and rich characters than in the plot itself. I look forward to reading more of Willa Cather's novels.

The original draft of this review along with some of my favorite passages from the book can be found here.

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