Review of 'O Pioneers' by Willa Catha

This book can be found on Amazon here.

‘O Pioneers’ starts with five year old Emil Bergson crying because his kitten is stuck up a tree and seeking the help of his sister, Alexandra.  At the end, the reader realises that this opening scene is an allegory for the novel as a whole.

When I readfredericksburg_room2 an old fashioned novel like this one, which was published in 1913, I wonder why I bother with contemporary fiction. This is the story of a woman farmer, Alexander Bergson, pitting her wits and holding her own with the land and her small village community.  Where’s the explicit sex?  There is none.  When does mc get drunk?  She doesn’t.  What drugs does she do?  She doesn’t.  Where are the self-destruct actions which typify many a spoilt, self-indulgent and navel-gazing modern novel characters?  Alexandra keeps her head at all times… as you would expect of a pioneer.  She is a protagonist who never let the reader down.  For modern examples, think of Anita Roddick and Karren Brady, single-minded, strong-willed and a good business head.

So what was there to write about?  Loads.   Like all best novels, ‘O Pioneers’ focuses on a family within a small community of Swedish immigrants, two characters in particular – Alexandra and her brother, Emil.  Other characters are kept to a minimum, a few, like ‘Ivar’, the eccentric horse-doctor, very distinct, whereas the rest, like Alexander’s two older brothers, were kept in the background.  Many points of view are used.  Midway through, I thought that this was going to be a story about the ups and downs of farming, good years and bad years, but it’s more than that, about how someone copes with the success  she had fought for.

All writing manuals advise fiction writers to allow their main characters at least one flaw and Alexandra did have one – she was too phlegmatic and unimaginative to put two and two together when two characters are getting too close.  Her reaction when she does find out is completely true to the period in which the novel was set and – inevitably – very non pc.  The emotional punch is consistently understated, but the author doesn’t shirk from killing off the person most dear to mc .

Like all older fiction, there was quite a lot of ‘tell’, evidence that this technique can be used effectively.  However, unlike many works of this era, ‘Ofredericksburg_room1 Pioneers’ did not include vast tracts describing scenery, but the atmosphere was implicit, with frequent references to ‘the old country’ and ‘proper Americans’.  I was put in mind of the later L M Montgomery novels.

So do I recommend it for reading?  Yes, emphatically.   Did I learn anything as a writer?  Yes.  It is possible to write an interesting and engaging novel about goodies.

The photos in this post are not of Nebraska, where ‘O Pioneers’ was set (because I haven’t been there), but taken by my husband at the Pioneer Museum in the delightful ‘German’ town of Fredericksburg, in Texas.


4 thoughts on “Review of 'O Pioneers' by Willa Catha

  1. FictionFan

    Yes, I think a lot of modern fiction has lost its way in its concentration on the angst-ridden, drug and sex-obsessed youth culture. It might be interesting to live (maybe!) but it becomes interminably dull to read about over and over. I feel I’ve seen hopeful signs in recent years though that that trend might be coming to an end and we might be getting back to good stories well told, about fairly ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In the meantime, there are always the oldies to fall back on… 🙂


  2. charliebritten Post author

    I do hope you’re right about the trend coming to an end, FictionFan. Particularly in the ezines I would like to sub to!


  3. julielees

    I love stories that give an insight in to the ordinary, yet extraordinary, lives of others and how they faced adversity and survived. It allows you to put your own troubles in to perspective.



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