Saturday, August 10, 2013

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913)

O Pioneers is flatter than My Antonia; if the two were paint, O Pioneers is more matte - perhaps semi-gloss.  My Antonia isn't exactly "gloss" - it doesn't shine like that; rather it has more depth than O Pioneers.  It's Willa Cather's second novel, and the first in the "prairie trilogy" or "Great Plains trilogy" (which to my mind isn't really a trilogy because the three aren't connected; more of a trio rather).  O Pioneers plot has an almost mini-series quality to it - of course, written long before the concept of a mini-series existed.  Maybe three nights on television - First Night, Alexandra's childhood on the farm in Nebraska and her father's demise; Night Two, the gradual turning against her of her conservative, more traditional, and sluggish brothers and their wives; Night 3, young Emil's affair with Marie Shabata contrasted with Alexandra's relationship with Carl Lindstrum.  I read in the foreward that some of this was based on actual stories Cather heard as a child in Nebraska, so fiction always imitates life.

What saves the story from its own melodrama is Cather's gift of creating realistic, memorable, even lovable, certainly relatable characters.  It's like Alexandra and Carl and Emil, Marie and Frank were all plucked from Cather's brain and sat down in the midst of this melodramatic plot, beautifully and fully formed.  If you grew up on the Great Plains anytime from the 1870s to the 1970s, you knew these people (I knew their grandchildren, as elderly people).  Is that Cather's genius, her ability to create such wonderful and moving and realistic characters?  That's at least what I think.

According Wikipedia, the Great and Powerful, these are the themes of O Pioneers!

Pioneers in Nebraska.  Which seems more like character than a theme.
Love and marriage.  That's certainly a theme.
Feminism.  Most certainly.
Realism.  That seems more like a genre than a theme.
Isolation.  I guess that makes sense.
Temptation is deadly.  And thus the melodrama begins.

O Pioneers!O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Almost melodrama (or a 1970s miniseries starring Susan Blakely as Alexandra, Richard Chamberlain as someone, and various other stars as everyone else)- save for Willa Cather's literary gift of the gods in creating memorable characters who are earthy and completely and wonderfully real.  The genius and beauty of My Antonia comes later, but O Pioneers is a satisfying novel that gives you a taste of the brilliance to come.  Alexandra and Antonia certainly inhabit the same world.

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I love this old cover.  Why don't they make covers like this anymore?

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