Author’s Note: After the first entry, I’ve decided on a few refining tweeks that I hope can make Dead Language much less about my quarter-life crisis, more structured, and thus more enjoyable and enlightening. Enjoy!
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years”
First published in 1913, O Pioneers was written by Willa Cather at the end of the age of the American frontier. More significantly, she wrote it right smack near the end of the American Industrial Revolution. In my review, I can identify two major conflicts occurring in this novel that give its plot and characters meaning.
First and foremost, O Pioneers decribes the process of hard work in an unforgiving terrain by immigrants from across Europe, but especially the Swedes and French. The main character, Alexandra, is of the former stock, and the book revolves around her struggle to modernize her families farm and fortunes. She is confronted by immediate challenges in the form of backward leading neighbors, terrible natural calamities, and issues of family loyalty and vitality. She overcomes these challenges, but at a heavy cost to her own freedom and happiness.
The second major conflict is not laid out clearly for the reader. Cather herself grew up on the frontier, in Nebraska. O Pioneers is a novel about changing times. Great attention is payed to how the older, first generation immigrants are gradually forced to adapt to new innovations born in American, like the modern bath tub. In such a trivial example as the bathtub is, Cather injects practical wisdom and cutting ridicule into what is essentially a critique of modern society. In the novel, the now elderly original pioneers are being forced to live at home with their Americanized children and forced to give up their simple methods of living. One women fakes to use the bath to satisfy her betters, but uses her old bath in secret. Cather is trying to remind her readers that, in a rush to advance as a people we may be sacrificing meaningful distinctions and traditions. We become a hollow society in which independent thinking and individual choice are decried and merely patronized; modern technology will replace outdated and backward cultural anachronisms.
The heroine of this novel achieved the dream of her late father through hard work and intelligence. I feel a tremendous sense of sadness when thinking about this book; it makes ME feel like the anachronism. Between the images of windswept plains, hard work, and a sense of community in O Pioneers!, I have started asking myself “Where did it go?”