Book 39: A book that got bad reviews, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
In effort to find a novel that got bad reviews, I consulted a list of books that got bad reviews upon their publication that later went on to become classics. On this list, I found O Pioneers. I can only say after having read the novel that I do not understand how it ever got bad reviews, but I definitely understand why it became a literary classic. This novel so fully encapsulates the immigrant Pioneer experience that you as a reader actually feel as if you are seeing the country through their hopeful eyes and it forever alters the way that you, even as a modern reader, feel about your own Patriotism. I felt such pride after reading this story–pride in my own immigrant ancestry, pride in the fact that so many hopeful people have come to my country over the centuries and found it such an awe inspiring place. It forced me to appreciate the amazing life I have as a result of these hard-working people who were once the backbone of this great nation. It makes me want to protect immigrants in my own time from the politicians and hateful others who wish to undermine them with an unprecedented ferocity. For those who love the Naturalist movement, this novel is not only a wonderful narrative about the people, but also the land. Cather’s beautiful prose about nature and the land in frontier Nebraska will knock your socks off. You will vividly see the beautiful natural landscapes as she paints them with her words and feel yourself transported to a simpler, more beautiful time.
The narrative follows the growth of the Bergson family starting with when their family recently settles in Nebraska from their native Sweden. Our protagonist, Alexandra, is the oldest of four surviving children and is entrusted with most of the important responsibilities regarding running the family farm as she displays the most acumen with business matters. Her two middle brothers assist with most of the physical farm labor, and the youngest is too little to assist the family in any capacity. Their father falls ill at the beginning of the novel, and the rest of the story unfolds into the struggle of the Bergson clan to maintain control of their farm and homestead. We are privy to the struggles they must endure and the sacrifices they must make to survive the harsh frontier intact. Though a short story, Cather packs the pages with poignant prose and beautiful scenic landscapes. You will be sad to see the story end, but satisfied with the conclusion and the future paths for this family. Cather’s novel is truly an excellent read and an integral part of the American literary canon as it beautiful captures a snapshot of our frontier history.