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I don’t know how, but I got through all of high school and college in America without reading a word of Willa Cather. It all worked out for the best though, since ten years ago I would have probably found her work like, totally boring and about farming and the human condition, or whatever.
I picked up My Antonia a few months ago and loved it to bits – to me, nothing beats stories written in ordinary language about ordinary people. Mix in some bleak, sweeping plains, some overtly lesbian action, and, yes, some awesome stuff about the human condition, and I’m happy.
O Pioneers! was written five years after My Antonia and you can pretty much tell. The story, while similar, is a bit more fantastic and formulaic – Cather studied a lot of Henry James early in her life, and you can tell. Everything is a little simpler and more straightforward in this book — the themes are more concrete, the storyline moves forward steadily, and the ending is clear-cut.
Still, though, there is some beautiful, wonderful stuff happening. The flat, blank unrelenting landscape makes for a great setting in that the characters are very much on their own – affected only by the weather and by each other. There’s not much out in Nebraska during this time period besides sod and humanity, and Cather knows how to write about both.
It’s one of those books where you want to underline things, all the time, like this: “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 save five notes over for thousands of years. The young people, they live so hard. And yet I sometimes envy them.” Or this, on the very next page, about problem with being free: “Freedom so often means one isn’t needed anywhere.”
And throughout so much of the book, I couldn’t help reeling at how ahead of her time Cather seemed: about women, about education, about religion. And, although it can never be confirmed, since she destroyed all of her personal papers before her death, it seems that Cather was one of the first authors to write about gay rights (but do we really need solid proof? Check out her author photo, for goodness sakes!). For example, in O Pioneers! the moral center of the book is an old man named Ivar. Ivar, whose love and understanding of animals makes him integral to the community, is also mostly mad due to a vague temptation of the body that is never named. He always walks barefoot to punish his body for what he is feeling and constantly reads the Bible for comfort – he has sacrificed his freedom to love in order to reach eternal paradise when he dies.
The book, ultimately, is about the constraints of freedom — being constrained in some respects in order to be free in others – and how getting older means choosing which freedoms you can live with best. Too bad I never got the chance to write a five-page high school essay on this.