Book Notes: "O Pioneers!" by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! (Great Plains Trilogy, #1)O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So far, every one of the Penguin Pocket Classics is worthy of five stars. These are, after all, classics, and as such, one would expect their rating to be nothing less than the best. But what makes a classic? Sometimes, there are certain quotes that stick. For example (p. 73):
Isn't it queer: 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 same five notes over for thousands of years.
I wonder if Annie Proulx's work, The Shipping News, will be regarded as a classic in 80 years' time? I cannot recall a single quote from that book, and, although I enjoyed reading it immensely, I don't recall much of the story. Willa Cather's work, however, will haunt me for some time, just as John Steinbeck's book The Red Pony did from the 1970s to the present, just as anything by Alexander Dumas does, and so on. I suppose I should now read the rest of Cather's trilogy. The idea of bringing one's family to the end of the earth for a better life, then finding only misery and death so that one's children might prosper, reminds me of tree planting. At a recent visit to Retford Park, I wondered at the forethought of Samuel Hordern and later James Fairfax in creating such a wonderful garden. Two days ago we planted some trees, and we have no idea whether we will enjoy the fruits of our labours in the distant future, or move away or even die imminently. One can only hope for the first outcome, but without ever really knowing. It would seem, then, that being a pioneer, whether it be carving a new life out of new land (which has its own inherent assumptions that usually involve displacing the traditional owners), is neither selfless nor selfish. The two would seem to balance each other out. Selfish, in that carving a life for one's own offspring at the expense of the "other"; and selfless, in that one may well die and not enjoy what cost one so much, but leave a legacy (which one won't know about if one is dead) for others to enjoy. I am talking about the earlier pioneers, and our protagonist, Alexandra, picks up her dead father's dream, amid many of her Swedish colleagues who decide to leave during the hard times and return to the cities, while those who remain keep doing the same old thing. I recall in the 1980s on the Atherton Tablelands, young farmers would obtain grants or subsidies and all plant onions. At harvest time, with onions everywhere and the market price dropping like houseflies facing-off Mortein, it was cheaper to plough the onions back into the ground rather than harvest them. And then the cycle would repeat with the next grant or subsidy. Any sane person would wonder at the strangely conservative nature of farmers, supported by an insanely conservative and stupid grant and subsidy system (which is now rather different since deregulation). But our protagonist, Alexandra, shows initiative that earns her the label "pioneer" in various ways, including carving a life out of the land, experimenting with new agricultural ideas, and doing all of this as an unmarried woman. There is much more to the story, and while I do not wish to give too much away, the reader will experience the "two or three human stories [lived] fiercely" and marvel at the inter-generational viewpoint that will no doubt haunt the mature reader. One might also learn a thing or two about peer pressure and jealousy and how stupid these things can be. And all from a measly 189 pages!

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