Thursday, June 29, 2017

Fiction | Taming the Wild

...Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

My library book club just finished Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, a selection I gladly picked up since this is my summer of reading classics and heftier titles. Despite its short length, I had zero idea what this 1913 staple of American literature was actually about, beyond what you could garner from the title.

The story centers around Alexandra Bergson and family, pioneers on the Nebraska prairie in the late 1800s. John Bergson, the patriarch passes away early on, leaving the farm in the hands of his daughter Alexandra in what would have been a hugely uncommon move at the time. (A woman in charge? Heavens!) Alexandra is the eldest of four. The two middle brothers, Lou and Oscar, work the farm but are generally more lazy, self-serving, and looking for a quick buck. They lack Alexandra's deep connection with the land itself, which is most likely why John didn't leave them in charge. They are also constantly concerned with how they appear to others and frequently question Alexandra's progressive decisions; they prefer to fall in line rather than stand out. The youngest Bergson, a son named Emil, is only five when the story begins and develops into a more sensitive, adventurous young man. He's somewhat pampered by Alexandra, because she sees how different his nature is from his older brothers, and he's the only one in the family who attends university. As a result, he's not always held in the highest regard by Lou and Oscar who are probably just jealous. Strangely, the family's actual (unnamed) matriarch is the least present character in the novel. She's described as a good housewife but misses life in the old country, and her life seems one of stoic adaptation.

The communities are small and fairly new, land that has yet to be tamed by its human settlers. The Bergsons represent the thousands of families that packed up and headed west because of the free land promised through the Homestead Act, the act of government that officially opened up the western frontier (reminder: lands taken from the American Indians) to settlers. These are people that are at the beck and call of nature; success or failure is almost entirely out of their hands as an unforeseen drought or late freeze can be your downfall. Cather reminds of us of this power of nature constantly:

"The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings." 
"But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. ...he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness."

There are neighbors and characters that humanize the story - Crazy Ivar, an elderly eccentric; Carl Linstrum, a neighboring young man about Alexandra's age who leaves the prairie and later returns; Marie Shabata, a vivacious young woman, the town beauty; Frank Shabata, Marie's husband, a bitter man unhappy with how his life has settled into one requiring constant hard work. These people, alongside the Bergson family, create the novel's page-to-page stories and conflicts. And those stories are nothing new. Obligation, love, jealousy, sacrifice - these are themes that fill the pages of book after book, and feel all the more powerful when set in such a stark environment such as this one.

What makes Cather's story unique, though, is that despite filling her pages with personal and family dramas, it's never a story strictly about the human condition. Alexandra is a strong, independent woman, yes, but she is so focused on the land that she sacrifices the more personal aspects of her life. She's deeply oblivious to the human passions that are playing out right in front of her because she is so self-sacrificing. Great melodramas of the 19th century - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Wharton and Austen - speak volumes on the universality of human nature, but I believe these are never Cather's interest nor focus. Relationships and behaviors fill the pages, but Cather's main focus is always the land.

"Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

I think O Pioneers! is very nearly a perfectly executed novel. Cather manages to convey complex conflicts and ideas through a simple, succinct story. It's one that is unique to her characters but potentially universal, representative of a specific time, place, or situation. Despite this praise, I have great dissatisfaction with the ending. In a nutshell, without sharing spoilers, I felt betrayed by the author who painted a final portrait of an Alexandra that felt very much opposite the one we had gotten to know for the previous 4/5ths of the book. It felt like the author asserting some moral or standard of the era rather than remaining true to the character she had created; it reeked of too much author voice instead of the character's (and story's) natural denouement. The ending notwithstanding, I found this a surprisingly deep and satisfying read.

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