Saturday, November 13, 2021

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!


Opening Passage:

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain "elevator" at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pond at the south end....

Summary: The Bergsons are a Swedish immigrant family in Nebraska; we open with Alexandra Bergson and her little brother Emil. Emil has lost his kitten up a pole, and another boy, Carl Linstrum, helps to retrieve it at Alexandra's request; Emil then plays with the kitten with another girl, Marie Tovesky.

It is a simple beginning, just a few children in the farming communities of Nebraska. But the thing about children is that they grow up, and in ways you could never expect. Alexandra has a head for farming, a natural talent, and she will become very successful in the area while other farming families around her fail. Carl Linstrum, Alexandra's closest friend in youth, is from one such family; he himself will eventually go off to become an engraver, and then later will go with a friend to Alaska to find gold. The middle Bergson children, Lou and Oscar, hardworking, competent, and perpetually malcontented, will do well on Alexandra's coattails, but as the narrator notes, they would have been much happier in a city with their roles all set out for them than they can be on the farming frontier, where all roles have to be improvised by imagination and dogged persistence. Little Emil will grow up, too, and go off to college. It will be clear enough that he and Marie are a little sweet on each other at one point, but nothing will come of it then; Emil will go to Mexico to see the world and Marie will marry a local man, Frank Shabhata, handsome and unruly. 

Marie's marriage will not be exactly a bad one, but as Marie notes at one point to Alexandra, she is the wrong woman for Frank; she loved him genuinely once, but it took being married to him to understand the kind of woman he needed, and that woman was not her. For his part, Frank is gnawed by a vague sense of jealousy, although it's not jealousy that can be directed anything, as Marie is a good Catholic and is determined to make the marriage work in the best way she can despite no longer loving him. But then Emil returns, in full blossom of manhood, and -- well, an old flame colliding with the gasoline of a jealous man is an old story.

Of all the people she had ever known, Carl was really the only friend that Alexandra had; they had toyed with the idea of marriage once, but Carl, who had nothing, had instead gone off to try to make a fortune. He returns eventually and the two will marry and visit Carl's claim in Alaska; but it is clear that Alexandra will return to Nebraska, where she very surely belongs.

A wedding, or at least the promise of one, is traditionally the ending of a happy story, but this work is a sad tale, full of people with profound and distinctive potential that the world somehow never quite accommodates. We live, grow old, and die against a background that goes on quite well without us, and that is the way of things. But for all that our paths never go quite straight, we can and do love, and we can be and are loved, on the crooked paths we walk.

There are books that show most of their power on first reading, and there are books that show most of their power on re-reading, and this, I think, is one of the latter. The tale of those children and that kitten reads much more deeply when you know where they all will end up. 

Favorite Passage:

"You belong to the land," Carl murmured, "as you have always said. Now more than ever." 

 "Yes, now more than ever. You remember what you once said about the graveyard, and the old story writing itself over? Only it is we who write it, with the best we have." 

 They paused on the last ridge of the pasture, overlooking the house and the windmill and the stables that marked the site of John Bergson's homestead. On every side the brown waves of the earth rolled away to meet the sky. 

 "Lou and Oscar can't see those things," said Alexandra suddenly. "Suppose I do will my land to their children, what difference will that make? The land belongs to the future, Carl; that's the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk's plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brothers' children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while."

Recommendation: Highly Recommended. While not a long story, it weaves together slowly, so it is important to have the patience to let all the pieces fall into place.