Tuesday, August 12, 2008

O Pioneers!: The Official Haiku Review

It's amazing the difference one word (and ninety years) can make. It took me three weeks and much toil to get through James Fenimore Cooper's 1823 novel The Pioneers. It took me less than two days to devour Willa Cather's 1913 novel O Pioneers! So without further ado (or complaint), here is my official Haiku Review:

For her, the land is
work, love, grief, poetry, self
Land is life; life, land.

Cather's short novel follows one woman over twenty years as she tries to make a success of her family's Nebraska farm. Sounds terribly exciting, right? But listen to how Cather turns the prairie into poetry:
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab building huddles on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that after this opening description Cather soon recounts the story of a kitten being rescued (awwwww!), but she punctuates her entire story with similar examples of beautiful writing. Her main character, Alexandra Bergson, isn't stunningly beautiful or spunky or clever; she seems an ordinary farmgirl, albeit one with dedication, determination, and a willingness to take risks. Despite her older brothers' hesitance to adopt newfangled techniques, Alexandra brings prosperity to her farm through canny management. It allows her younger brother to go to college and leave Alexandra and the land behind. There seems to be no room for adventure or grand passions in her life, but she sees that such passions can bring tragedy. In the end, she has love and her farm (although her older brothers attempt to take it from her—bad men, grrr!), and the simple life suits her: "We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while."

Beyond the pure beauty of her words, Cather's talent is to portray the essence of her subjects in just a few scenes. The novel is less than 200 pages long, but I felt I learned more about her characters and their Nebraska farmlands than I did from Cooper's 450 pages. After finishing I immediately wanted to hit the library and find Cather's other books. Of course, they will have to wait for the end of the summer, after I read a couple more American classics. But it does make me wonder what other marvels I have missed.


  1. I've been reading your blog from the beginning. I just have to say, get busy on Chapter 17!

  2. This is a great review. But I have to agree with your mom!