The heroine of Willa Cather’s novel is Alexandra Bergson, whose family farms a bleak homestead outside the little town of Hanover, “huddled on the windblown Nebraska prairie.” One cold winter day, Alexandra and her little brother Emil go into town to pick up a prescription for her father, who is ill. As they prepare to leave, Carl Lindstrom, another Swedish boy, rescues Emil’s kitten from atop a telegraph pole. That winter, Alexandra’s father does not recover, and finally, on his deathbed, he calls the family together and tells his sons to listen to Alexandra after he dies.
A strong and capable girl, Alexandra is the smartest and most businesslike in her family and knows how to manage their farm. The two middle boys are slow and thick-witted, and Emil, the youngest, is an artist and dreamer. A handsome young man, Emil is attracted to Marie Shabata, a pretty and vivacious Czech girl married to a jealous and possessive husband. Alexandra admires Carl Lindstrom, her childhood friend, who has left for Chicago to become an engraver.
The high prairie country is hard to farm and after a few bad years the settlers begin to sell out, but Alexandra has promised her father to stay. In buying more land while the price is low, she shows the courage and imagination of a true pioneer.
After sixteen years, Alexandra and her brothers have prospered by staying when others left. Her brothers have both married, but they fail to appreciate Alexandra’s talent and ability. When Carl Lindstrom comes back to visit her, they are suspicious and warn her not to marry him. Emil, now twenty-one, returns from the university and flirts with Marie Shabata. He finds that he is still in love with her and the two manage to meet despite her husband’s jealous watchfulness. Realizing that the situation is hopeless, Emil decides to travel to Mexico City about the same time that Carl leaves for the Alaskan goldmines. Alexandra remains loyal to the land that has nurtured her.
Bagley, M. C. Cather’s Myths. New York: American Heritage, 1994. Discusses O Pioneers! in the context of the American myth of the settlement of the land and of the counter-myth of the rejection of the land. Places emphasis on Alexandra’s relationship to the land and how this symbolizes the settlement of America.
Bennett, Mildred R. “O Pioneers!” In The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. Discusses Cather’s early life in Nebraska as the setting and inspiration for O Pioneers!
Motley, Warren. “The Unfinished Self: Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and the Psychic Cost of a Woman’s Success.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12, no. 2 (1986): 149-165. Discusses the conflicts between many women’s desire for independence in the early twentieth century and their repression by society, especially in discussing Alexandra’s isolation.
Murphy, John J., ed. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. This collection of essays deals with various themes and ideas, such as sexuality and childhood, encountered in Cather’s novels.
Murphy, John J. Willa Cather: Family, Community, and History. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1990. This collection of critical essays examines recurrent motifs in Cather’s novels, such as how socialized concepts affect individual ideas about one’s place in the family, community, and history.
O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice . New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. This biography...
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