This post is part of the 2013 Feminist Reads Challenge. To learn more about the challenge or join in, click here.
by Izzy Labbe
I was talking to my mom’s best friend the other day, and she told me a story about a project she had to do on the state of Nebraska when she was in school. She said she hunted down the only book her school library had that was about Nebraska–O, Pioneers! by Willa Cather. At the time, she had NO idea who Willa Cather was, or what her book was about, but she told me that at that moment, there seemed to be nothing worse in the entire universe than reading an eighty-year-old book about Nebraska for a project.
But she was wrong. When I picked up O, Pioneers! one afternoon and started reading, I was engrossed from the get-go. For one thing, it is probably the most beautiful book I’ve ever read–the language, the realism, the gentle-yet-gorgeous way Cather describes things as trivial as walking down the road or eating an apple.
Cather, who was born in 1873 in Gore, Virginia, was pretty revolutionary for her time. In college she asked to be called ‘William’ and wore masculine clothes and short hair; many historians and biographers believe she was an out lesbian, as she was known to have relationships with women, including Edith Lewis, with whom she lived for over twenty years until her own death in 1947.
Although she was a relatively private person, Cather was moderately vocal about women’s issues, and often wrote about the women’s rights movement of the turn-of-the-century. Her books are almost all revolving around a strong female character, and often include men who admired and looked up to them.
O, Pioneers! is the story of Alexandra Bergson, a remarkably strong and clever pioneer woman on the Nebraska plains at the turn of the century. Alexandra is wise, kind, and straight-forward. When tragedy strikes (and, oh, how it strikes), she takes it all calmly. But she is still a human, and cries and shows emotion, which reminds us that she’s not perfect, which is what we all want in a protagonist.
Although there are many sub-plots involving love, lust, abusive husbands, murder, sickness, Nebraska, Bohemians, crazy old men, and other delicious literary topics, O, Pioneers! is really a book about change–about growing up, specifically. The book spans over twenty years of Alexandra’s life, from her young adulthood to her mid-40s. One of my favorite quotes from the book says, “There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon.”
One of my favorite parts about this book is that Alexandra, who chooses not to marry until she is over 40, which was a super-taboo for a woman in 1913, doesn’t throw away the concept of love. She often has dreams about falling in love with someone who will respect her and make her happy in her old age. Cather really emphasizes a good point here: women don’t have to reject the whole idea of marriage to be feminists; it’s all about choice.
O, Pioneers! changed a lot of my perception of literature. Before I read this book, I thought they would have burned you alive for writing about women’s issues in 1913. I’m still a little surprised that it’s become such a staple of classic American literature in the mostly male-dominated world of literature, but I think I know why it has: Cather’s narration and writing style is so good, it could make a phone book win the Pulitzer (which, by the way, she did win, but not for O, Pioneers!). When it all comes down to it, Cather’s books are the double whammy I was dreaming of: an amazing piece of classic fiction with strong female characters.
So go on, my feminist reader friend! Experience Willa Cather yourself. But I’m warning you- you WILL weep like a baby upon reading O, Pioneers!. I did. And as one of the other characters, Marie, says in the book: “When I’ve cried until I can’t cry anymore, then–then I must do something else.” I think I’ll go read another of her books.