Thursday, May 2, 2013

What if Isaac had met Alexandra Bergson?

Cabin at Homestead Park in Nebraska
I have already shared my love for Willa Cather's books and short stories in this blog.  (See "Writer of the Prairie" in the blog archives at October 4, 2012.)  It is difficult for me to narrow down a single favorite among her wonderful short stories, but I have a definite favorite novel.  It is probably because I identify with Alexandra Bergson's feelings for the land, among other reasons, that explains my love for the novel, O Pioneers!
This quote near the end of the book, as Alexandra expresses her feelings to her life-long friend Carl Linstrum, is explanation enough for my emotional connection to the book:  "The land belongs to the future, Carl; that's the way it seems to me.  How many of the names on the county clerk's plat will be there in fifty years?  ...  We come and go, but the land is always here.  And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it--for a little while." 
I was raised in the house my paternal grandfather and his mother built.  The timber claim house on the creek and the big Victorian house built later by my maternal great grandparents were both standing and owned by decendants back then.  My father told me, "Always hold onto the land," and I have.  With so many ancestral farms around me, and the advice of my father emphasizing the point, it was natural that I saw land as part of a family's heritage, to be passed from generation to generation.
Cover from early edition
Yet, doing the research for Isaac's story, I came to know the names of so many early pioneers whose family surnames have disappeared from the community.  My maternal grandparents' homes remain, but they are no longer owned by family.  While I may value the idea of families staying on the farm for generations, that is no longer the norm.  "We come and go...and the people who love it...own it--for a little while." 
O Pioneers! was published in 1913.  It tells the story of a Swedish family that settles on the Nebraska prairie and struggles to survive.  When the father is dying, he entrusts the management of the farm to his daughter, Alexandra, instructing her brothers to follow her advice and leaving specific instructions for how the land is to be divided when the boys are old enough to marry and have farms of their own. 
Alexandra succeeds, surviving the years when times are hard and many other settlers sell the land and leave the prairie.  Her brothers are not always supportive of her decisions, although they honor their father's wishes to follow Alexandra's advice.  The two older brothers marry and have families, but Alexandra gives her labor and love to the land, and it rewards her well.  Cather describes the results of Alexandra's efforts with these words:  "When you go out of the house into the flower garden, there you feel again the order and fine arrangement manifest all over the great farm; in the fencing and hedging, in the windbreaks and sheds, in the symmetrical pasture ponds, planted with scrub willows to give shade to the cattle in fly-time.  There is even a white row of beehives in the orchard, under the walnut trees.  You feel that properly, Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best."
Image from movie starring Jessica Lange
In 1992 O Pioneers! was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, with Jessica Lange cast as Alexandra, Heather Graham playing the young Alexandra, and David Strathaim cast as Carl.  The DVD is still available for purchase, although I would always suggest that you read the book first and watch the movie later.
The annual Spring Conference held at Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather's hometown, selects a particular piece of Cather's writings to study each year.  This year's choice is O Pioneers!.  I will enjoy hearing the Cather scholars deliver their lectures about this novel that I love, but I doubt that anything I learn will increase the way Cather's own words draw me into this book.  "She had never known before how much the country meant to her.  The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music.  She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun.  Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring."
If Isaac Werner could have met the fictional Alexandra Bergson, how they would have loved sharing farming advice!  I think they would have made great friends, but they were both too devoted to making a success of their farms to take the time for romance.  Besides, Carl and Alexandra were destined to be together, from the time they were children.

(Visit for more information about Willa Cather and her writing.)

Postscript:  As I am about to post this blog, I have discovered a link to an NPR review of the new book, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, including an interview with one of the editors, Andrew Jewell.  I recommend that you open this link to enjoy the review and Andy's comments.  Be sure to read the excerpt from the Introduction that is attached.  One of Ours, for which Cather won the Pulitzer, is another of my favorites, and I can hardly wait to read her letters about her cousin and her family connection to characters in that novel.  The new book will certainly be a treasure for fans and scholars! 


Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I'm delighted to see so many visitors to this week's blog from Sweden, since the fictional Alexandra Bergson was a Swedish immigrant. Obviously, I think she represents her homeland beautifully!

The Blog Fodder said...

"We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it--for a little while."

Your quotes hit home with me. All my life I wanted to farm but it was not to be. My siblings now own the land my grandfather bought 100 years ago. I made them buy me out when Dad died as I just wanted to leave it behind.