Willa Cather’s second novel is abundant with interwoven themes. In one respect Cather bears witness to the early 20th-century Pioneers. The farmer taming the wild Northern States of America, battling with the elements and an unforgiving land to create a home, family and livelihood. On another level O Pioneers! is the story of Alexandra Bergson. Due to the death of her father she becomes the head of the household and spends her time between protecting her younger brother and out in the countryside that has become hers. Overshadowed somewhat by the more popular My Antonia this early work of Cather’s is a much admired example of early 20th-century American fiction. O Pioneers! is a powerful testimony to love, the land and the pioneering spirit.
It is many years since I read any Willa Cather, and all I can remember of the two novels I did read is that I enjoyed them. This was a lovely novel to reacquaint myself with her work. The wild untamed landscape of the American west is brought to life, in Cather’s vivid descriptions. In this difficult country the Bergson’s battle to raise a family and farm the land. Along with the story of Alexandra’s management of her family’s lands, is woven two love stories, with very different outcomes. Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, is her hope for the future – but tragically things don’t turn out as she expects when Emil finds himself drawn to Maria Shabata, a young married neighbour he knew briefly as a child. Maybe the most surprising element to the novel is Alexandra’s reaction to Emil and Maria’s fate, and what it might tell us about the times in which Cather was writing.