“Now that I think of it, most of my girls have married men they were afraid of. I believe there is a good deal of the cow in most Swedish girls.”
O Pioneers! is the first volume of the Great Plains trilogy by Willa Cather. It centers on a Swedish family migrating to Nebraska at the turn of the century, and their struggles and triumphs, with the land and with the neighbors that surround them. She portrays not just Swedish people and customs, but also the neighboring Bohemian, French and Germans immigrants. As the novel goes on, some of the character become more “American”: only speaking English at home, leaving customs aside that attract the neighbors’ attention, and always seeking out the latest must-have invention or fad. The more charming characters are those who keep something of the old country, whether it is the old grandmother who only speaks Swedish and is afraid to use the bath tub, or the barefoot horse doctor who has vision and spells but is perfectly harmless. Having just finished Kristin Lavransdatter, a modern novel of 14th century Norway, it is hard to believe that O Pioneers! takes place five centuries later on the other side of the world. Cather does not criticize those who lose their culture, but the reader can almost hear her sigh at the inevitable homogeneity that evens out the richness of the various cultures.
I know many who mistakenly believe Willa Cather was Catholic. This is partly due to her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, which dwells on Catholic themes in a Catholic context. But there is also her accurate and lively portrayal of the Church and the faith of Catholics, usually Bohemian or French, with all its beauties and blemishes. Cather almost sounds pagan at times with the way she talks about the relationship of people with the earth and animals, and yet this too is rooted in her Christian belief that a good God created these things and they were not nearly so harmed by the fall as humanity was. She also seems to understand and hold the Catholic belief that beatitude consists in the all-satisfying vision of God. This is never stated simply, but she several times describes the rapture of someone who has beheld beauty in all its purity, in such a way that the reader is carried into it made confident that to see such perfection is what we were made for. At the same time, there is the reality of the fall: beauty is no longer so perfectly allied with the good and true, and the pursuit of it may lead to ruin.
It is also a love story, or perhaps a couple love stories.
I highly recommend O Pioneers! to anyone looking for a good read. For all the similar themes, I found it different than My Antonia, and even more enjoyable, staying much closer to country.