O Pioneers!: Thoughts & Comments

I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading O Pioneers!, book two of the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge.

My Thoughts
O Pioneers! is the novel that sparked my love affair with Cather. I’ve read it a half dozen times, first in graduate school in my 20s and then for pleasure in my 30s. With each reading I was struck by different characters and scenes. One of the pleasures of re-reading a book is seeing how it can speak to us differently as we change over the years. Reading O Pioneers! now in my mid-40s made it seem like a brand new novel.

In the past I considered the novel a bit disjointed between the stories of Alexander/Carl and Marie/Emil, but with this reading the two stories seemed to smoothly mesh together. From the very first chapter Marie is presented as an object of desire and competition for the men around her. Alexandra is a tall and strong girl who exhibits “Amazonian fierceness,” whereas Carl is presented as a lonely & sensitive young man. Emil sits crying hopeless over the kitty that he can’t reach and Marie already wants to share her candy with him. It’s all right there and then weaves throughout the rest of the novel.

Alexandra and Crazy Ivar remain my favorite characters. It still really pisses me off when Alexandra’s thick-headed brothers try to bully her into not marrying Carl, saying that “she liked to run things, and we humored her.” They forget that they were ready to walk away from the land and that they don’t have an innovative or forward-thinking bone between them. This time around, however, the character who most captured my imagination is Frank Shabata.

In prior readings I had always despised Frank’s egocentric anger, jealousy, and abusive behavior. He seemed like a big, miserable baby, another angry man who made life hell for those closest to him. This time I had much more understanding and compassion for him. Not that I condone his behavior, but he’s a capital V, Victim. He’s victim to his temperament and circumstances. Frank doesn’t do anything to help himself, but keeps himself whipped up in a frenzy, stoking his frustration with stories from the newspaper and imaging Marie having feelings for his hired hands.

I felt more compassion for him now because I can see/admit that I’ve acted like a victim at points in my life and I’ve watched loved ones struggle as well. The tragedy of Frank’s life is that there’s no one in his life to tell him to knock it off already, to pull up his big boy pants and get on with life. Nor does he have the emotional intelligence to try to understand himself and make some changes in his life: “It had never more than dimly occurred to Frank that he made his own unhappiness.”

Is temperament changeable? Cather implies it is not:

“Frank’s case was all the more painful because he had no one in particular to fix his jealousy upon. . . . At the bottom of his heart Frank knew well enough that if he could once give up his grudge, his wife would come back to him. But he could never in the world do that. The grudge was fundamental. Perhaps he could not have given it up if he had tried” (italics added).

If his condition is fundamental, that means he couldn’t have changed it, but perhaps he could have worked to soften the hard edges? Carl seems to be Frank’s opposite in this way–he works to sharpen his soft edges, to ‘man-up’ a bit more for Alexandra. Even if she insists Carl is fine just the way he is, he believes that since they will be living among her people, he wants to fit in as much as possible. Alexandra doesn’t agree, but she knows it’s what he has to do for himself.

The issue of place has much to do with temperament. As Marie says of her husband, “Frank would be alright in the right place.” If Carl and Alexandra lived in a city, Carl would be alright, too. Cather seems to be saying that we need to find the right place and the right people for our temperaments, yet not to take this to the extreme because, “It’s bad if all the member of a family think alike. They never get anywhere.”

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Much is said about marriage in this novel. Scholars are fond of pointing out Cather’s view, as espoused in this novel, that marriage is most satisfying when it’s between friends as opposed to having its origins in the violent feelings of youthful passion. Alexandra says that most of her Swedish girls have “married men they were afraid of,” which, in the context of the novel seems to be a cultural and economic issue as well. Frank and Marie were certainly not a good match. Marie knows that he was a poor choice of a husband, and provides the main reason why marrying young can be a problem: “Frank is just the same now as he was then, only then I would see him as I wanted him to be. I would have my own way. And now I pay for it.” When we’re younger most of us see what we want to see, but when we’re older (and, if lucky, wiser) we see people for who they are, not for what we want them to be. When we can see people more clearly and if we understand ourselves, then we can make a more compatible match.

Would Emil and Marie make a good match? Their adulterous passion seems to be one of the most “natural” passions in the novel. Most readers want them to get together, forgetting at times that they’re cheering for people to commit adultery. What’s good, what’s bad, who says? This is why I love Cather’s novels–they seem so simple on the surface, but make a small scratch and soon you’re digging into the depths of a complex world of ideas and images.

I never liked and still don’t agree with Alexandra’s efforts to get Frank pardoned. After all, he did kill two people that she loved. She understands people’s temperaments and obviously works with them, but in the end where does it get her? One of the saddest lines in the book is about Frank: “Perhaps he got more satisfaction out of feeling himself abused than he would have got out of being loved.” Is Alexandra in the same situation with loneliness?

Questions to Ponder

  • Is Carl worthy of Alexandra’s love? Does he show strength or weakness of character by not accepting her proposal and going off to make “the usual effort”?
  • Are Marie and Emil more responsible for their own deaths than is Frank?
  • Does the novel read smoothly to you or do the two main storylines not mesh well in your opinion?
  • Do you think that O Pioneers! is all that radically different than Alexander’s Bridge? What are some similarities and differences between the two novels?
  • Do you think Alexandra and Carl will live happily ever after?

Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your twentieth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on O Pioneers!

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Author: Chris Wolak

I'm cohost of the podcast Book Cougars: Two Middle-Aged Women on the Hunt for a Good Read and write about books and libraries on my blog, WildmooBooks.

11 thoughts

  1. As someone who is also a prairie writer, I was happy to see this post: the Great Plains have not yet taken their rightful place in American literature.

    Cather is a giant.

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  2. I enjoyed reading O Pioneers! Here is a link to my Goodreads review: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/530788.O_Pioneers_

    I wasn't able to track down a copy of the Hallmark adaptation but I think David Strathairn as Carl is excellent casting. He'd bring the right mix of dignity and disillusionment.

    Frank Shabata is a complicated character. I'm glad that Cather doesn't just make him pure evil.

    The scene where Alexandra visits Frank in prison was riveting. Alexandra realizes that they are both “wrecked by the same storm.” They are victims of the tragic love affair and prisoners of guilt and sorrow. It's bleak stuff, summed up by the Byron quote: “Henceforth the world will only be. A wider prison-house to me.”

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  3. I've been so happy to participate in this reading challenge. I have the Library of America editions of Cather's work but I hadn't read them.

    After January's book, which I found to be a bit overwrought, I was really looking forward to O Pioneers! and I savored this book. I read it by the teaspoon. I was reminded of Mari Sandoz' memoir, Old Jules, which my mother gave to me to read as a window into her life growing up in Nebraska. That was a seminal book for me, and I wish I had read O Pioneers! then.

    I was most impressed with Cather's ability to convey a sense of place. From little Emil and the poor cat to the various orchard scenes, I felt transported.

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  4. I do enjoy reading O Pioneers!. It is true that the tale transforms with each reading, and each decade that passes between readings. I love Alexandra's strength, and the fact that her father recognized it, and rewarded it, at a time when women were mere chattel and was more successful than her brothers ever could have dreamed. I am not sure that Alexandra and Carl would have been happy had they married when young – it was probably a better suited marriage later in life. I do admire how Cather can create such diverse and complex characters.

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  5. O Pioneers! is one of my all-time favorite novels. I’ve read it many times, each time at a slower pace than before. It’s like savoring a fine, old wine. I like to savor Willa Cather’s wonderful evocations of the prairie and its very human residents.

    Among its many stories, O Pioneers! is about a woman who loves the land and way of life the isolated existence provides. For better and for worse, she is chained to it for life. Yes, there are many downsides – mainly loneliness – but also many upsides – the sheer pleasure of another’s company, as one example.

    I admire strong women and consequently especially admire Alexander’s character. She is the epitome of a strong, independent woman. Whether one lives in the city or on a farm, she is a role model for even women today. When she gets a little older, we’ll encourage our now 9-year-old niece to read O Pioneers and hopefully see what good character, strength and brains can lead to.

    I am not surprised at Alexander’s visit to Frank in prison and her intention to lobby for his pardon. She realizes that Marie and Emil were equally to blame, and she even takes on some guilt herself for not noticing their attraction for each other. Frank’s crime, after all, was a crime of passion. It happened without thinking. This is why there are different levels of prosecution for kilings – everything from capital murder to manslaughter to involuntary manslaughter. Frank’s was certainly the lessor of the crimes – nothing premeditated, driven purely by emotion, not even comprehending what he was doing, not fully intending to kill anyone. I doubt Alexander would have succeeded in his obtaining a pardon – after all he did kill two people – but perhaps her work would have resulted in an earlier release for him. I think she would have been satisfied with that outcome. I don't believe I would have sought a pardon since some punishment was warranted, but perhaps I would have urged a lessor sentence than what he received.

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  6. Love the Byron quote. I saw the Hallmark adaptation when it first came out but it's been so long that I don't even really remember what I thought about it. I have a vague sense of having liked it, but couldn't tell you exactly why.

    Has anyone seen it recently (or have a better memory than me)?

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  7. Yes, one of my favorite scenes is when Emil is cutting the grass in the cemetery. That scene invokes all of my senses.

    Old Jules has the distinction of being the only book I've ever thrown across the room in disgust. Of course I retrieved it immediately and kept reading, but Old Jules's behavior and Sandoz's ability to describe it is just amazing. I felt like I was right there in the mix! I'd like to read more of Sandoz's work.

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  8. Mike, your comments make me realize that Alexandra is the type who learns from her mistakes. We just don't see that many in the book, but as a pioneer in both action and thought, there had to be a lot of trial and error on her part. In the case of Alexandra's realization that she's been blind to the attraction between Emil & Marie, she's not going to sit around dwelling on her guilt, but would set out to learn what she can. In this case, from Frank. I think most people are capable of crimes of passion, but Cather does such a brilliant job of building the tension within Frank that there's no doubt that his passion could run so completely out of control in the orchard scene. It is absolutely believable. And now I see her attempt at getting him a pardon as more believable, too. Thanks, Mike.

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