Willa Cather is a genius. There, I said it. It’s out of the way. O Pioneers! was published in 1913 and I’m convinced, had it been published just a few years later, she would’ve won the Pulitzer for it. Sadly, the prize had yet to be established when O Pioneers! was published.
Many factors go into making Cather such a brilliant writer but foremost, in my mind, is her ability to effortlessly describe the essence (or soul) of a character. This is the first in her trilogy devoted to life on the American Plains at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the book starts off on the dusty street of a one-horse prairie town describing the chance encounter of a young girl and a crusty plains traveler. The encounter, though perfectly innocent, ends embarrassingly for the traveler and he retreats to the bar to lick his wounds:
”When a drummer had been knocking about in little drab towns and crawling across the wintry country in dirty smoking cars, was he to be blamed if, when he chanced upon a fine human creature, he suddenly wished himself more of a man?”
In O Pioneers! Willa Cather establishes her place among the literary greats – male or female, let’s discard that distinction forever, shall we? Her prose not only transported me to the place about which she writes so movingly, it also placed me square in the heart of each of her characters as they wrestled with life’s eternal questions of allegiance and honor (to family and self), attempted to decipher love in all its glorious, imperfect permutations, and struggled to understand fate – simple, immutable fate. And, as she led me to understand the human potential for redemption and forgiveness, I remembered that those elements reside within me – they’re universal. The great writers always seem to bring that home and Cather does so in spectacular fashion here.