September 2021 Group Read - O! Pioneers by Willa Cather

Original topic subject: September 2021 Group Read - O! Pionners by Willa Caher

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September 2021 Group Read - O! Pioneers by Willa Cather

Edited: Sep 2, 2021, 6:37am

A new feature in the Geeks who love the Classics group: an impromptu group read for September 2021!
The idea was suggested by Tess-W. After a few nominations and a vote, we settled for O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

Please, when posting, try to mention where you are at in the book (which part or chapter, as we do not all read the same edition), and flag any spoilers (and/or use the spoiler option).

Here are the LT members participating in this group read:
kac22 (not reading, but following the discussion)

Edited to add: Sorry for the mispelling in the title!!! If someone knows how to fix this, please do let me know!

Aug 31, 2021, 10:10am

In order to start, here are a few words about Willa Cather, taken from wikipedia.

Willa Cather (Dec. 7, 1873 – Apr. 24, 1947) was an American writer known for her novels of life on the Great Plains, including three novels set on the prairies of the Great Plains, which eventually became both popular and critical successes: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918), which are—taken together—sometimes referred to as her "Prairie Trilogy". It is this succession of plains-based novels for which Cather was celebrated for her use of plainspoken language about ordinary people.

Willa Cather ca. 1912 wearing necklace from Sarah Orne Jewett
Photographer/Studio/Creator Aime Dupont, New York

Cather achieved recognition as a novelist of the frontier and pioneer experience. She wrote of the spirit of those settlers moving into the western states, many of them European immigrants in the nineteenth century. Common themes in her work include nostalgia and exile. A sense of place is an important element in Cather's fiction: physical landscapes and domestic spaces are for Cather dynamic presences against which her characters struggle and find community.
Sinclair Lewis, for example, praised her work for making Nebraska available to the wider world for the first time. After writing The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lamented that it was a failure in comparison to My Ántonia.

Aug 31, 2021, 10:11am

And now, an introduction to the novel, also taken from wikipedia.

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by American author Willa Cather, written while she was living in New York. This is her second published novel.
It tells the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American immigrants in the farm country near the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland when her father dies, and she devotes her life to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time when many other immigrant families are giving up and leaving the prairie.

First edition:

The book is divided into 5 parts:
Part I – The Wild Land
Part II – Neighboring Fields
Part III – Winter Memories
Part IV – The White Mulberry Tree
Part V – Alexandra

Aug 31, 2021, 10:13am

Some interesting links:
The Willa Cather Archive website:
including an on-line version of O Pioneers!:

Aug 31, 2021, 10:14am

In order to start off this thread, each of us could present the edition he or she will be reading, and maybe add for how long this book has been on the TBR pile (or how you decided to join this group read).
I’ll add names of participants into the 1st post as they show up into this thread.

Aug 31, 2021, 10:26am

>5 raton-liseur: Answering my own question, I first heard about Willa Cather three years ago, when I joined the Club Read group on LT, as one of the members was reading all Willa Cather. I got interested in her books but never took the time to start reading it, so this group read is an opportunity for me to finally discover the work of this author.
I’ll read the Project Gutenberg version (available here). The cover is the standard (not so nice) PG cover, and the book is only 133 pages on my e-reader. it’s likely to be long pages!

I am likely to be a slow reader, as I decided to read the book in English, which (as you might have guessed) is not my mother tongue. I’m excited to start this group read and hope many readers will join !

Aug 31, 2021, 11:35am

>5 raton-liseur: I'm here! And thanks for setting up the thread.

I heard of Willa Cather either from my mother or one of my schoolbooks (or maybe both), and I've read maybe one or two of her short stories, but never any of her novels. Cather hasn't actually been on my reading list, but I do so love to join a group read, especially of a classic, when I have the time!

There's nothing fancy about my copy either:

I can't tell how many pages it has but it's absolutely bare bones. No intro, no nothing, just the novel. It'll be under 200 pages at any rate.

Looking forward to the discussion.

Aug 31, 2021, 2:12pm

>7 Majel-Susan: Welcome! I have added you on the list in the 1st post.
Your book cover makes me think it's a SF book, rather than a western!

Aug 31, 2021, 6:42pm

I bought the Vintage Classics paperback edition at the start of August when it was mentioned here as a possible group read. This is the first thing I've read by Cather.

Aug 31, 2021, 8:42pm

I won't be re-reading (I re-read it a couple of years ago), but I'll be following along with the discussion here. My Everyman's Library hardcover edition has 188 pages. If I get time, I may read Cather's Song of the Lark, which is one of hers I haven't read yet.

Sep 2, 2021, 6:43am

>9 cpg: Welcome cpg.

>10 kac522: Welcome kac522. It will be interesting to see what sticked in your memories from your past reading.
Song of the Lark should be in my TBR soon!

Sep 2, 2021, 6:43am

First sentence:
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

Sep 2, 2021, 12:26pm

>12 raton-liseur:

1) O Pioneers! was published in 1913, which I guess would mean the book starts in 1883.

2) Allegedly, Hanover is modeled after the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Cather grew up.

Sep 3, 2021, 10:47am

By using Google Street View on the highways north of Red Cloud, you can possibly get a feel for how Cather envisioned the countryside around the Bergson homestead (once the pioneers had tamed it somewhat). It's less bleak than I had pictured it when I read the book.

As I think you'll see, there are really no rolling hills like you might find in and around Omaha. Corresponding to "The Divide" referred to in the book, there's apparently an area called "The Divide" north of Red Cloud that separates the basin of the Republican River from the basin of the Little Blue River. This real-life divide is a few hundred feet above the rivers but the slope up to it is so gradual and steady that it looks pretty flat.

Sep 3, 2021, 1:21pm

Part I: The Wild Land, Ch 1-5—Part II: Neighboring Fields, Ch 1

Farming is hard work! (I wouldn't know.) Not much happens here, but I do admire how relatively sparse Cather's description is, yet so evocative. A bit here and a bit there, and the vision and atmosphere of the setting come to life. I thought it was very efficient as well, how Part I serves to raise the stakes for impending tragedy (I haven’t got to any tragedy so far, but the main blurb on GR suggests one). It illustrates the Bergsons' humble beginnings and the painful trials through which they had to pass in order to reach the present prosperity of Part II, without getting into all the details of the intervening sixteen years.

From a literary analysis point of view, also, I'm guessing that the bit about Ivar and the birds and his story about the sea gull in Pt I, Ch 3, will come into play later as an allegory of sorts for---it remains to be seen.

I'm interested in seeing how Alexandra's relationships with her brothers have developed, as well as in whether Carl will make another appearance soon. They seemed, ahem! Close.

Sep 5, 2021, 3:21pm

I had to look up for the Nebraska article in Wikipedia to have a feel of what this State looks like.
I heard about the Great Plains at school, read some books, watched some films, but it is still difficult for me to picture so muche open space.
Here is a photo from wikipedia.

Sep 5, 2021, 3:34pm

So far, I've read Part I (The Wild Land), chapter 1 to 3, and I'm likely to finish this part tonight.
Fortunately, the English is not really challenging.

I like it so far. The description of the landscape is enticing, Alexandra is an interesting character. I've always liked strong women characters! (and I liked the way her realtionship with her dad is described. He would have prefered a boy, but can bear the fact that his heir is a girl).

And I like Ivar (who appears in chapter 3). He seems to be some 100 or 150 years ahead of his time. It's always interesting to see such characters in "old" novels, as a statement that at that time, there were already some people who questionned our relationship with the wild.

Sep 8, 2021, 5:37am

Part II: Neighboring Fields, Ch 2-6

Lou appears to have turned into a snob, along with his wife, but not their daughter, Milly, who prefers her aunt's company to her mother's... Hmm, I'm not sure I generally care for one-sided presentations of "unpleasant" characters, especially where one might understand that their hardness is not necessarily intrinsic to their personalities but comes from a place of former hardships. But that's just me going off on a tangent.

Carl has made his return! Quite a pleasant fellow, I think. It seems like the old days of sweat and tears hold a special place of nostalgia in Carl's memory. I found it interesting, too, how Alexandra tells Carl that she would rather have had his freedom than her land, considering how tenaciously she has held on to it and her affection for the old ways.

"Freedom so often means that one isn't needed anywhere."

Hmm... Do I spy future trouble brewing over at the Shabatas' over Emil and Marie? Also, Carl has "something" to say. I'm waiting on him. XD

Sep 8, 2021, 5:52am

>17 raton-liseur: I liked the way her realtionship with her dad is described. He would have prefered a boy, but can bear the fact that his heir is a girl.

I liked that, too. I understand that these early pioneers would have had to face no end of challenges and that if they were going to make things work, they would have to be adaptive and innovative. On that line of thought, I wonder how common it was back then to have entrusted the main care of one's property to a daughter, even if she were the eldest child. From the looks of it, it wasn't too common, and I think that Alexandra was able to profit from her father's foresight and flourish with the wisdom that he was willing to share and trust her with, just as much as if she had been a son.

Sep 8, 2021, 12:28pm

>18 Majel-Susan: I read this book in 2018 for my book club. The conversation between Alexandra and Carl is a section that I remember well, especially the way Alexandra sums it up:

We grow hard and heavy here. We don't move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn't feel that it was much worth while to work.

A couple of other things from my notes:
--That ducks show up throughout the novel, and appear to be symbolic.
--The Section "The Mulberry Tree" may be a literary allusion to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe (from Ovid's Metamorphoses), and how the mulberry got its dark color.

Edited: Sep 9, 2021, 9:18am

>20 kac522: I hadn't noticed, but now that you mention it, yes, those ducks do keep popping up! Thanks for pointing that out. I will pay more attention the next time they come about again.

I had to refresh my memory on Pyramus and Thisbe, but I will be interested in how that ties into the story at the end.

I haven't got to Part VI: The White Mulberry Tree yet, but I was intrigued by the way Marie speaks of the Bohemian tree worshipers and her mulberry tree in Pt II, Ch 8:

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do. I feel as if this tree knows everything I ever think of when I sit here. When I come back to it, I never have to remind it of anything; I begin just where I left off.

Sep 9, 2021, 1:33pm

>21 Majel-Susan: I didn't know anything about the mulberry tree symbolism until it was mentioned somewhere reviewing the book. We had a mulberry tree in our backyard growing up--good thing I didn't know about it then--I would have hated it!

Sep 12, 2021, 1:18pm

Part II: Neighboring Fields, Ch 7-12

The "can't be just friends" thing didn't go down well between Emil and Marie, and while he doesn't seem to be looking to break up her marriage, I agree that with such bitterness, it is best to simply keep one's distance. I'm sure Ivar would have some advice on keeping out of temptation's way. ;)

Also, the "you're not just friends" talk didn't go down too well between Alexandra and her brothers either. I must admit that I had a pretty similar feeling to Emil's about the news that she wanted to marry Carl. I figured that Carl was interested in her, but she just seemed so powerful in her own way and independent that I wasn't sure that she would be in love, at least not past the point where she was young and sorry that Carl was leaving with his father years ago. Still I'm not surprised, especially when she explains to Emil that she's been lonely, and I definitely felt for her when Lou and Oscar decide to insult her sensibility and her contributions to their family success. It is an unfortunate falling out, followed by Carl's departure and Emil's intention to leave.

Sep 12, 2021, 3:54pm

I finished the book this morning (and could not post as often as I had expected in the past few days...).
O Pioneers! is a nice read. I am not sure I really cared for the love stories that are the center of parts II to IV, but I love the way Willa Cather describes the link between human beings and the land.
I loved the forth chapter in part one, describing this link, and the last chapter, especially the last sentence still resonates after I've closed the book.

Sep 12, 2021, 3:57pm

>23 Majel-Susan: I was a bit disappointed when I started to read part II, to see that it is set 16 years after the first part. I feel we miss a lot about the early pioneers days.
I don't know if you felt the same about this change of tone between part I and part II.

Sep 14, 2021, 5:14pm

I've been kinda busy lately, but still reading where I can find the time. I'm currently at Part IV, Ch 5.

Sep 14, 2021, 5:15pm

>25 raton-liseur: I did feel the shift of tone and, perhaps, of focus, as well. And as you pointed out, this link between humans and the land is very beautifully described in Part I. I had thought that that might be the primary relationship of the story, but reading on I'm not really sure that it is about that anymore.

The love stories... hmm, it's true, I am interested in how things will play out, but I can't say either, at least where I am at the moment, that I care in particular about our lovers.

I do like, however, how naturing Alexandra has been towards all of the young people, and especially her relationship with Emil so far.

Sep 18, 2021, 6:48pm

Finished O Pioneers! today

Darn, I felt bad for everybody: Emil and Marie, Alexandra, even Frank.

Poor Alexandra! Everything she had ever done, everything she had worked so hard for was for Emil, so that he could live free, his spirit untethered to the toil of the earth. And now she's lost him... :'(

There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain. — Pt IV, Ch 1

This line stood out to me and, I think, characterises the mood of the novel very well. There is always this contrast between Alexandra's firm calm and the vivacity of the youth around her, as the story moves to and fro, what happens in the lives of the young, and what in Alexandra's.

In Pt IV, Ch 7, Frank's killing of Emil and Marie brought me back to the time that Emil shoots the ducks and Marie, distressed, says: "Ivar's right about wild things. They're too happy to kill. You can tell just how they felt when they flew up. They were scared, but they didn't really think anything could hurt them."

There was something about Part V: Alexandra that reminded me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, and also, The Burden by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie), how the characters reflect on their role in the tragedy of loved ones.

Overall, while the story doesn't particularly stand out to me, I enjoyed the read and wouldn't mind reading more of Cather sometime down the road.

Thanks, raton-liseur, for suggesting O Pioneers! and setting up our thread!

Edited: Sep 19, 2021, 9:26am

>28 Majel-Susan: I'm happy you enjoyed the read. I did too.
I had a similar feeling while finishing the read: the story is not of particular interest, but I liked what surrounds it. And for me, the most interesting is the link between the land and the people.
I love the last sentence of the book:
Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

I will definitely read the following books in this trilogy in a not-so-distant future! And I'm really happy I've discovered this author that I heard about for the first time one or two years ago, here in LT.

Sep 24, 2021, 11:30pm

Did not join as I have read this book twice. I liked it no better the second time than the first. Just a little too bland for my taste.

Oct 9, 2021, 1:10pm

>25 raton-liseur: That struck me very forcefully. We are deprived of the transition work, with its hardships and rewards.

Oct 16, 2021, 5:53am

>31 2wonderY: Yes, and I felt robbed of what could have been the best part of the book. Nevertheless, I liked the read and I'll carry on reading the trilogy, hoping that this is not a trend in her books.

Oct 26, 2021, 12:45pm

By the way, at last, the subject have been changed, and now there is no mispelling. I feel better about it!

Oct 27, 2021, 10:55am

I finally posted my review for O! Pioneers. It's in French, but if someone is interested, the link is here.

Off for the next group read now...