What was it about?
After the death of her parents, Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant, becomes responsible for the well-being of her three brothers and for the running of the family homestead. Her friend Carl Linstrum suddenly leaves Nebraska for Chicago in hopes of making a fortune. When he returns after 13 years, Alexandra learns that Carl is on his way to Alaska. He has never found his place in the world. He is not alone. Marie Shabata is in a love-less marriage, and Ivar has earned the name “Crazy Ivar” for his outlandish mystical views. Faced with so many responsibilities, Alexandra does not have time to tend to her own personal needs. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather explores love and friendship in the beautiful but unforgiving Nebraska plains.
What did I think of it?
What can I say? Willa Cather has produced yet another literary masterpiece. Like My Ántonia, O Pioneers! chronicles the lives of immigrants from Scandinavia. In fact, O Pioneers! and My Antonia are the first and third books in Cather’s Great Plains Trilogy. The Nebraska plains are stunningly beautiful, but the immigrants who live in the region have only one thing on their mind – survival. Alexandra is forced to take on many responsibilities as a young woman, but she and her friends are constantly scrutinized by her two older brothers. The woman runs the homestead, but it never really belongs to her. Alexandra takes care of everyone else, but no one takes care of her. People marry for purely economic reasons, so romance, if it exists at all, is found outside of marriage. Willa Cather is one of the three most poetic writers I’ve ever encountered (the other two being Marilynne Robinson and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).She can pack so much emotion into a phrase. While I thought My Ántonia was a more powerful work, the female characters in O Pioneers! are more compelling. If you love character studies, you will enjoy Cather’s novels.
“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.”
What was it about?
After losing both his parents, ten year old James (Jim) Burden relocates to Black Hawk, Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There, he meets families from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia who have come to the American frontiers in search of a future. The Shimerdas are one such family. They are Bohemian immigrants who try to eke out a living in the harsh and unforgiving Nebraska Prairie. My Antonia by Willa Cather is the coming-of-age story of Antonia Shimerda. Her friendship as well as her personal trials and triumphs put Jim’s life into perspective.
What did I think of it?
It is difficult to give an introduction to My Antonia because the book is basically a series of anecdotes from Jim and Antonia’s lives. It is lyrically beautiful but brutally realistic about the immigrant experience on the American frontier. Cather’s work reminds me of the 1857 oil painting by Jean Francois Millet called The Gleaners. The harshness of peasant life takes center stage in an otherwise picturesque landscape. But unlike the peasants in The Gleaners painting, Antonia, her family, and friends are not static, archetypal figures. They all start in the same place, but they do not all end up occupying the same positions in life. Chance and perseverance shape the sort of people that they become. Jim learns to see the frontier through the eyes of an immigrant. As in all of Willa Cather’s novels, the characters are fully fleshed-out people; not one is a throwaway. If you have never read anything by Cather, I definitely suggest you start with My Antonia (or Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I reviewed last year).
[At the grave of Mr. Shimerda (Antonia’s father who committed suicide)]:
“Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence—the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.”
What was it about?
Inspired by the lives of two historical French priests, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather explores the story of the mission lands of the 19th century American Southwest through the experiences of Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant. The eponymous bishop is called from his diocese in Sandusky, Ohio to start an apostolate in New Mexico. A sickly but committed priest accompanies him on the long and arduous journey to Santa Fe. The Mexicans and Indians of the region have had a complicated history with foreign missionaries. Some priests intimidated and exploited their parishioners while others brought hope and comfort to the poor and downtrodden. Throughout their ministries, Bishop Latour and Fr. Vaillant receive challenges and blessings from people so different in custom from the French. And yet, missionary work is a two-way experience. The priests, too, learn much from the people they encounter on their journey through life. Sometimes, the priests are the ones on the receiving end.
What did I think of it?
The friendship between Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Fr. Joseph Vaillant must be one of the greatest friendships in all of literature. Vaillant (which means Valiant in French) is a powerhouse of a priest. What he lacks in physical attractiveness he makes up for in zeal. At a moment’s notice, he packs up his few belongings and travels thousands of miles to minister the sacraments to Catholics in desperate need of a caring priest. While he is certainly not without his faults, Fr. Vaillant’s unwavering faith is admirable. He completes Fr. Latour (whose last name means The Tower). Much of my love for this book derived from my personal relationship with a priest who is so much like Fr. Vaillant and who ministers to people of similar demographics.This priest is Brazillian and heads a city parish. However, because he is fluent in Portuguese and Italian, he also ministers to the Brazillian and Italian communities of the city, wherever they are located. It seems as if he runs not one but three parishes. The city has become a mission. It is rare to encounter dedicated priests in literature (or in popular culture in general), but Cather gives an honest and sympathetic portrayal of missionary life.
I have only ever read two books about the mission lands of the American Southwest (the first was Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett, which I highly recommend). I have been told that Americans who live in states such as California and New Mexico are taught Death Comes for the Archbishop at school because the foreign missionaries had a huge impact on those regions. Willa Cather does not offer a stereotyped portrayal of Mexicans and Navajo Indians. She clearly understands the struggles they face and their approaches to faith.
Lastly, the novel explores the various challenges facing missionary priests and the various roles they assume in society. Some priests are well-loved but disobedient. They are popular with their parishioners but for all the wrong reasons. Others are disliked because they exploit the people for their own personal gain. And still others, like Fr. Vaillant, are under-appreciated because they come into conflict with the worldly interests of others. The question I considered as I read Death Comes for the Archbishop was “What makes a good priest?” As the characters are depicted in their full humanity, this is a question that the reader is forced to wrestle with throughout the novel. This is certainly a Great American Novel and probably the most meaningful work I have read this year.
“Where there is great love there are always miracles,” [Fr. Vaillant] said at length. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”