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O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by American author Willa Cather, written while she was living in New York. It is the first novel of her Great Plains trilogy, followed by The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918).
- 1 Plot introduction
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Characters
- 4 Major themes
- 5 Allusions
- 6 Literary significance and criticism
- 7 Background
- 8 References
- 9 External links
O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants in the farm country near the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland when her father dies and devotes her life to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time when many other immigrant families are giving up and leaving the prairie. The novel is also concerned with two romantic relationships, one between Alexandra and family friend Carl Linstrum and the other between Alexandra's brother Emil and the married Marie Shabata.
The book is divided into five parts, each of which has numerous chapters.
Part I – The Wild Land
On a windy day in Hanover, Nebraska, Alexandra Bergson is with her five-year-old brother Emil, whose little kitten has climbed a telegraph pole and is afraid to come down. Alexandra asks her neighbor and friend Carl Linstrum to retrieve the kitten. Later, Alexandra finds Emil in the general store with Marie Tovesky. They are playing with the kitten. Marie lives in Omaha and is visiting her uncle Joe Tovesky.
Alexandra's father is dying, and it is his wish that she run the farm after he is gone. Alexandra and her brothers Oscar and Lou later visit Ivar, known as Crazy Ivar because of his unorthodox views. For instance, he sleeps in a hammock, believes in killing no living thing and goes barefoot summer and winter. But he is known for healing sick animals. Alexandra is concerned about their hogs as the hogs of many of their neighbors are dying. Crazy Ivar advises her to keep their hogs clean rather than letting them live in filth and to give them fresh, clean water and good food. This simply confirms Oscar's and Lou's opinion that Ivar deserves the name Crazy Ivar. Alexandra, however, starts making plans for where she will relocate the hogs.
After years of crop failure, many of the Bergson's neighbors are selling out, even if it means taking a loss. Then they learn the Lindstrums have also decided to leave. Oscar and Lou want to leave too, but neither their mother nor Alexandra will. After visiting villages downwards to see how they are getting on, Alexandra talks her brothers into mortgaging the farm to buy more land, in hopes of ending up as rich landowners.
Part II – Neighboring Fields
Sixteen years later, the farms are now prosperous. Alexandra and her brothers have divided up their inheritance, and Emil has just returned from college. The Linstrum farm has failed, and Marie, now married to Frank Shabata, has bought it. That same day, the Bergsons are surprised by a visit from Carl Linstrum, whom they have not seen for thirteen years. [Note: Carl says it has been sixteen years, but this is a textual error. John Bergson died sixteen years earlier, and Carl's family left during the drought that occurred three years later.] Having failed at a job in Chicago, he is on his way to Alaska, but decides to stay with Alexandra for a while. Carl notices the growing flirtatious relationship between Emil and Marie. Lou and Oscar suspect that Carl wants to marry Alexandra, and are resentful at the idea that Carl might try to marry into a farm, while they had to work hard for theirs. This causes problems between Alexandra and her brothers, and they stop speaking to each other. Carl, recognizing a problem, decides to leave for Alaska. At the same time, Emil announces he is leaving for a job in Mexico City. Alexandra is left alone.
Part III – Winter Memories
Alexandra spends the winter alone, except for occasional visits from Marie, whom she visits with Mrs. Lee, Lou's mother-in-law. She also has an increased number of the mysterious dreams she has had since girlhood.
Part IV – The White Mulberry Tree
Emil returns from Mexico City. His best friend, Amédée, is now married with a young son. At a fair at the French church, Emil and Marie kiss for the first time. They later confess their illicit love, and Emil determines to leave for law school in Michigan. Before he leaves, Amédée dies from a ruptured appendix, and as a result both Emil and Marie realize what they value most. Before leaving for Michigan, Emil stops by Marie's farm to say one last goodbye, and they fall into a passionate embrace beneath the white mulberry tree. They stay there for several hours, until Marie's husband, Frank, finds them and shoots them in a drunken rage. He flees to Omaha, where he later turns himself in for the crime. Ivar discovers Emil's abandoned horse, leading him to search for the boy and discover the bodies.
Part V – Alexandra
After Emil's death Alexandra is distraught, in shock, and slightly out of it. She goes off in a rainstorm. Ivar goes looking for her and brings her back home, where she sleeps fitfully and dreams about death. She then decides to visit Frank in Lincoln where he is incarcerated. While in town she walks by Emil's university campus, comes upon a polite young man, and feels better. The next day she talks to Frank in prison. He is bedraggled and can barely speak properly, and she promises to do what she can to see him released; she bears no ill will toward him. She then receives a telegram from Carl, telling her that he is back. They decide to marry, unconcerned with her brothers' approval.
- Alexandra Bergson: the main character of the book. A strong-willed and intelligent woman. She was given the farm by her father John Bergson and over the next 16 years makes it very prosperous. Alexandra is not good at sensing the feelings of other people or herself – it takes her a long time to realize that she loves Carl Linstrum. She also misses Emil's growing attraction toward the unhappily married Marie Shabata. She also seems to forgive easily, as she claims to have no ill will against Frank, despite the fact he savagely murdered her brother. She is about 40 years old in the second part of the book.
- Emil Bergson: the youngest child of John Bergson. An intelligent, handsome, and athletic person. A university graduate. Tragically, he is in love with the unhappily married Marie Shabata. He leaves for Mexico to try to escape his temptation for Marie, but after a year he cannot resist and returns. Before leaving for law school he bids a final goodbye to Marie, kissing her for the first time, but Frank Shabata, Marie's husband, drunkenly catches them in the act and shoots them both. He is mentally tormented by the crime and is jailed after turning himself in.
- Crazy Ivar: lives in a remote plot of land in Nebraska that is difficult to get to, so nobody visits him. He is reported to be crazy, and makes hammocks. He reads the Swedish Bible and has a mystic quality about him. He also has a great affinity for animals, especially birds.
- Carl: Alexandra's close childhood friend. As an adult, her suitor and husband.
- Signa: the youngest of Alexandra's Swedish servants, her favorite.
- Barney Flinn: Alexandra's foreman.
- Mrs. Hiller: a neighbor.
- Nelse Jensen: Signa's suitor, then husband.
- Annie Lee: Lou's wife's maiden name.
- Mrs. Lee: Lou's mother-in-law.
- Milly: Annie's 15-year-old daughter. She plays the organ and the piano (which Alexandra bought for her).
- Stella: Annie's younger daughter.
- Marie Tovesky Shabata: Emil's unrequited love interest. A charming female neighbor who has known the Bergsons since childhood and is characterized as being simultaneously aloof and warm towards everyone without prejudice or favor, which infuriates her husband Frank, as well as Emil, who harbors romantic feelings for her despite her marriage to Frank.
- Frank Shabata: Marie's husband. His character is a representation of anger and irrationality on the prairie. He kills his wife Marie and Emil in a drunken rage, and is sent to prison in Lincoln, Nebraska. He regrets doing what he did and he looks destroyed when Alexandra goes to visit him.
- Albert Tovesky: Marie's father; an adviser in Omaha.
- Amédée Chevalier: a Frenchman, friends with Emil. He dies from a ruptured appendix.
- Angélique Chevalier: Amédée's wife.
- Father Duchesne: the French priest.
- Raoul Marcel: a good friend to Emil
- Moses Marcel: Raoul's father.
- Mr. Schwartz: the warden at the prison where Frank is being kept.
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- Pioneers in Nebraska.
- Love and marriage.
- Temptation is deadly.
- Marie is first described as being dressed as a Kate Greenaway character would be.
- In the first chapter, the children are said to be reading Hans Christian Andersen and "the Swiss family Robinson".
- In the fourth chapter, Alexandra is said to like to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poetry.
- Many copies of the book are accompanied with the poem, "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" by Walt Whitman, which is said to be where the title comes from.
- The romance between Emil and Marie and their death alludes to the similarly tragic lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid's book Metamorphoses. Clear evidence of this occurs on page 173 where "the white mulberries...were covered with a dark stain", directly corresponding to Ovid: nam color in pomo est.
- In the first chapter of Part II, Emil and Marie mention John Huss.
- In the first chapter of Part II, Emil's letters are said to mention Porfirio Díaz.
- In the second chapter of Part II, Lou mentions William Jennings Bryan.
- The romance between Emil and Marie and their death alludes to the similarly tragic lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid's book Metamorphoses. Clear evidence of this occurs on page 173 where "the white mulberries...were covered with a dark stain", directly corresponding to Ovid: nam color in pomo est.("The hand she held was covered with dark stains, where she had kissed it. But the stained slippery grass, the darkened mulberries, told only half the story. Above Marie and Emil, two white butterflies from Frank's alfalfa-field were flutterin in and out among the interlacing shadows...)
Literary significance and criticism
- Bernice Slote, 'Willa Cather and Her First Book', Willa Cather, April Twilights, University of Nebraska Press, 1968, page xiv
- Bernice Slote, 'Willa Cather and Her First Book', Willa Cather, April Twilights, University of Nebraska Press, 1968, page xliv
- The Willa Cather Archive | Community
- Woodress, J. (1987). Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4734-6
- O Pioneers! at Project Gutenberg
- Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
- First Edition at the Willa Cather Archive