Coming back to read this book for a second time reminded me that when I first read Willa Cather – many years ago – she took me to a time and place I had known nothing about and she made me realise that there were more sides to classic writing than I had realised.
Before I read her books the only American woman author I knew was Louisa May Alcott ….
Enthused by my new discovery I read every single book I could find in a short space of time, not really stopping to think about the arc of her storytelling life or how one book related to another.
Now that I have come back to her work, reading all of her books in chronological order and thinking about them a little more along the way, I can say that though she hadn’t reached the peak of her powers when she wrote this, her second book, it is a wonderful work and a very fine demonstration of what she could do.
Her writing is sparse and yet it says so much so clearly. It speaks profoundly of the consequences of travelling to a new life in America, of the harsh realities of pioneer life, and of particular lives lived.
Alexandra Bergson travelled from Sweden to Nebraska as a child with her parents and siblings. Her father knew little about farming, he was ill-equipped for the new life he had chosen, but was intelligent, he saw so many possibilities, and he was prepared to work hard to make a better future for his family.
Lou and Oscar, his first two sons, had no interest in farm work and could see no potential in the land. Alexandra could, she saw the same things, she had the same love for the land as her father. He appreciated that, and when he died he left her a controlling interest in the family estate. Her brother were appalled when she invested in more and more land as other farmers gave it up to return to the city or to safer, more fertile country.
She had faith in its future.
Her faith was justified.
Twenty years later Alexandra was the mistress of a prosperous and unencumbered empire, and head of her own household. She loved being part of the pioneer community and that community had loved and respected her; she appreciated the old ways, and she was always ready to give her time and to take trouble for her friends and neighbours.
Lou and Oscar were both married and established in new lives, enjoying the fruits of the family success without really appreciating what their sister had done. It was her younger brother, Emil, who was the apple of Alexandra’s eye, her hope for the future, and she was so pleased that she was able to send him to university.
She loved the land, but she understood that the life she had chosen might not be the life that her brother would want.
Alexandra was a strong, practical and intelligent woman who had a wonderful understanding of her world and who cared deeply for the people whose lives touched hers. She loved her life but there were times when she was lonely, when she wished that she had a husband and family of her own, and when she even wondered if the struggles she had made to tame the land that she loved had been worthwhile.
She was still close to Carl Linstrom, the best friend of her childhood, but his family had been one of those that gave up the pioneering life and returned to the city, and that had taken Carl into a very different world. He understood Alexandra better than anyone else though, and was his support Alexandra the courage to face the future after something devastating happened.
It happened because though there was much that was stable and certain in Alexandra’s world, but not everything. Her younger friend, Marie, who was young and bright, who had such hopes and dream, realised that her impulsive marriage had been a mistake and that she would have to live with the consequences. When Emil came home he had changed, and his own hopes and dreams were something that he could never share with his sister.
The telling of this story is utterly so. Willa Cather painted her characters and their world so beautifully and with such depth that it became utterly real. Everything in this book lived and breathed. Every emotion, every nuance was right. I lived this story with Alexandra, Emil, Marie, and their friends and neighbours.
I can’t judge them or evaluate them, because I feel too close to them. I’m still thinking of them not as characters but as people I have come to know well and have many, complex feelings about.
The story is beautifully balanced, with many moments of happiness – and even humour – coming from successes, from the observance of old traditions, and simply from the joy of being alive in the world.
It’s a simple story with a very conventional narrative. In some ways it’s a little simplistic, but it’s very well told.
Willa Cather had still to grow as a writer.
And yet it feels completely right ….