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Willa Cather: O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! is the story of Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, who has to take over the family when her father dies. Her father had tried to scratch out a living on the Nebraska Divide and, when he dies, it falls to his daughter to continue the struggle. Despite the fact that her brothers want to give up and that the family of her close friend, Carl Linstrum, gives up and leaves, she perseveres against all odds, expanding when others are selling, introducing new agricultural techniques over the objections of her weak brothers. Eventually, after much struggle, she wins. By the time she is forty, though still single, she has created for herself a thriving farm, while her brothers, who have benefited from her endeavours (and resent them) have done well, though not as well.

The book then changes substantially. Unknown to Alexandra her young brother, Emil, now grown up, is in love with Maria, the wife of her Bohemian neighbour. At the same time, Carl Linstrum reappears, having had little success in life, and passing through on his way to be a prospector in California. Alexandra is struggling against her brothers who feel, quite unjustly, that, as the woman, she should bow to their demands. She is also eager to gain the happiness she has missed out on, by marrying Carl, despite the objections of her brothers (who consider her too old for marriage) and, indeed, of Carl himself, who feels he has to prove himself first. She fails to see the tragedy of her brother and Maria unfolding before her eyes.

The character of Alexandra dominates this book. She is strong and resilient but she is also caring and thoughtful, always looking out for the people around her. Her strength – against the land, against her brothers, against the difficult conditions – makes her almost a mythical character, rising above the ordinariness around her. Cather will return to this theme.

Publishing history

First published 1913 by Houghton Mifflin