Some Cool Prairie Air
The novel’s central character, Alexandra Bergson, is the kind I needed as a kid (when we were apt to play “pioneer” in the back yard)—physically strong, with a head for business, and a sure moral compass. Following her father’s dying wish, she raises her baby brother and manages the struggling family farm into prosperity, through creative, nonconformist choices. She becomes a fortysomething, unmarried matriarch in her small community of stoic, serious Swedes, settled in the Nebraska plains, among others from Scandinavia, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), Germany, and France.
When the book opens, the land is still wild and scary. By the end, the land has been tamed, but the people still must contend with the wildness in themselves. Classic human conflict, and I’m a sucker for it.
Alexandra is the kind of heroine you admire; she has good impulse control, and fights righteously. Okay, I know, boring. But she’s steady because she needs to be, to glue the story together; she’s the stout sunflower around whom the other characters buzz. The narration is “central intelligence” third person, looking mostly over Alexandra’s shoulder, but panning too into the POV of others, who are more in tune with the ironies of human nature. Especially Emil, the heart of the story, if Alexandra is its head.
Emil’s the kid brother, city-educated, and therefore conflicted. He has a love-hate relationship with the plains, and an even more painful relationship with Marie, the Bohemian girl he can’t have, because she is married. Here’s Emil, responding to Marie’s (blind? insensitive?) remark that he can “do anything” with his educated ass:
“And there are so many, many things I can’t do,” Emil echoed her tone sarcastically. “Sometimes I don’t want to do anything at all, and sometimes I want to pull the four corners of the Divide together,”—he threw out his arm and brought it back with a jerk, — “so, like a table-cloth. I get tired of seeing men and horses going up and down, up and down.”
Emil goes to Mexico City to party and forget Marie. He comes back more worldly, but still, there’s no tequila strong enough to kill the magnetic pull of the prairie and its Bohemian girl. Cather’s paintbrush admires women, but identifies more with men. (I won’t go into the author’s butch mode of dress, nickname “Willie,” etc., but it is interesting backstory for those inclined to read it.) In O PIONEERS, we get to explore the dark interior of Emil’s longing for Marie, but Marie herself is more object, “brown bunny,” exciting and fascinating to the stiff Swedes who love her. And me, I always fall for the lover in fiction, not the beloved, so Emil steals my heart. Or maybe I'm just hopelessly straight. (I’m getting ready to fall for MY ANTONIA’S narrator, Jim Burden; next book on my reserve list.)
The city vs. country theme is another Cather trademark: cosmopolitan thinking with a nostalgia for homestead and big spaces. Cather lays the conflict out cleanly in the voice of Carl the artist, Alexandra’s longtime friend who has returned from the city:
"When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder. "
But Alexandra still covets this life, this freedom, for Emil. She counters, “We pay a high rent too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff.”
Stiff minds do abound, even Alexandra’s to a degree; she is blind Emil’s problem, to the erotic drama happening under her nose. But even stiff minds can find clarity in the elements and vast space. Near the conclusion, Alexandra stands in a rainstorm, chilled through, next to her family’s graves. She tells her housemates:
"After you once get cold clear through, the feeling of rain on you is sweet. It seems to bring back feelings you had when you were a baby. It carries you back into the dark, before you were born; you can’t see things, but they come to you, somehow, and you know them and aren’t afraid of them. Maybe it’s like that with the dead. If they feel anything at all, it’s the old things, before they were born, that comfort people like the feeling of their own bed does when they are little. "
Alexandra finds solace in the primal, in the found innocence that accompanies death, where social overlays like religion, marriage, propriety (and sexual orientation) are nonentities. In nature. At once familiar and mysterious.
Oh God, I’m making it sound so melodramatic. Cather is funny, too. It’s a sweet sense of humor, played out in quirky characters who only the Alexandras of the world can appreciate, like Ivar, the vegetarian hermit, who lives in a sod house:
Ivar found contentment in the solitude he had sought out for himself. He disliked the litter of human dwellings: the broken food, the bits of broken china, the old wash-boilers and tea-kettles thrown into the sunflower patch. He preferred the cleanness and tidiness of the wild sod. He always said that the badgers had cleaner houses than people, and that when he took a housekeeper her name would be Mrs. Badger.
I want to live in a sod house. I want to meet an Ivar. I want to see a prairie, a real one, not a Nebraska cornfield with a straight road and a million rednecks in pickup trucks. I want to write pure, airy prose about impure, complicated people. I’m heading for the next Cather.