One of Ours is another in a long line of beautiful works by Willa Cather, and the one she won a Pulitzer for. If you’re a Cather fan already, well, you’re used to her stories generally going not much of any place in particular. If you’re new to her work, prepare for a languorous, yet profound, journey through the lives of remarkably ordinary people. One of Ours hews to her style of magnificently in-depth characterizations and elegiac descriptions of the early twentieth century American Midwest.
This book centers around a second generation Nebraska farmer who’s just entering his twenties and discovering that the life his family, and convention, have mapped out for him doesn’t hold the promise for learning and adventure that his own spirit seems to harbor. He knows and loves a wonderful cast of characters in his hometown but he can’t seem to shake the nagging feeling that there’s more, somewhere out there, waiting for him.
To say that Willa Cather is a master of characterization seems to sell her short, somehow. She has the ability to, time and again, shine a brilliant, honest light deep into the soul of just about every character she brings to life. In describing a father contemplating what advice to impart upon a young man who’s asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, she told it thusly:
What he wanted to do was hold up life as he had found it, like a picture to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.
Gradually, One of Ours brings World War I to the Nebraskan heartland and Cather explores new places in the human heart, as she takes the reader into the reckonings of everyday people in a time of war. In accordance with her inimitable style, there’s not a lot of shooting or things blowing up. Instead, she poignantly, tenderly, takes the reader on a journey through the highs and lows of temperament felt by a young man who’s already experiencing what are likely to be his life’s greatest glories. The realization of this stark fact is immensely powerful, and Cather portrays it with masterful grace and compassion. I’d take issue with the classification of One of Ours as a war story, however. Rather, it’s simply another superb exploration of the most basic hopes and dreams and fears of our fellow travelers, delivered with typical virtuosity by Willa Cather. And it’s one that’s well worthy of the prize it earned.