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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

O Pioneers! presents one woman’s experiences as she struggles to keep her family together in harsh conditions on the Nebraska prairie, called “the divide” in the book, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book is divided into five parts. Part 1, called “The Wild Land,” introduces the teenaged Alexandra Bergson, her young brother Emil, her friend Carl Linstrum (who is slightly younger than herself), and an already captivating girl, Marie Tovesky, who is visiting her uncle. Even in this first section, it is clear that Alexandra is in charge of her family’s farm now, since her father is bedridden. It is she whom he trusts with the care of the farm, especially since he knows that he will die soon. John Bergson recognizes in Alexandra strength of will and a direct way of thinking things out, but he would rather have seen these traits in one of his sons, believing that it is a man’s place to lead. John Bergson’s prejudice against his most able child because of her gender prepares readers for the other biases that Alexandra will encounter.

Part 2, “Neighboring Fields,” takes place sixteen years after John Bergson’s death. The prairie has given up its struggle against the farmers and now yields abundant crops. Amid all the abundance is Emil, scything the grass in the old Norwegian cemetery, and Marie, who has come to give him a ride home. This scene foreshadows many others to come. Two future events are of special importance. After the death of his best friend, Amedee, Emil decides that he cannot waste his life because death can come at any moment; at Amedee’s grave he decides that he will have Marie, his beloved, who is already married to Frank Shabata. The cemetery also foretells a scene that the reader is not shown but which must happen after Emil and Marie are found making love in the Shabata orchard.

The neighboring fields are Marie and Frank’s, but they are not the only neighbors with whom Alexandra must deal. Her own brothers, Lou and Oscar, have now taken their shares of the much-expanded farmstead. Their jealousy of Alexandra’s continued success without them makes them unfriendly when Carl Linstrum returns from Missouri to visit. When they realize that Alexandra is seriously considering marrying Carl, the brothers accost her, telling her that she cannot hand over her land to a man because it still belongs to them, the men of the family. Alexandra points out legalities to them and reminds them of her contributions to and literal salvation of the homestead. To Lou and Oscar, the idea that Alexandra, who is nearing forty, would want to get married is ludicrous.

It is only Emil who supports Alexandra’s love for Carl. Even Carl has doubts: He calls himself a failure and is unable to marry into comfort—believing, like most men of his time, that he has to prove himself successful in order to claim that he is fully a man. Thus Alexandra is denied by the American belief of rugged individualism the happiness that she had been denying herself all those years. Emil, meanwhile, declares his love to Marie. Because of her devout Catholicism, she warns him that they have to pretend that they are not in love, or they would not be able to continue to be friends.

In part 3, “Winter Memories,” Emil is in Mexico trying to forget Marie, and Carl has gone to Alaska to try to make his fortune. Alexandra and Marie while away the winter days visiting. It is during one of these visits that Alexandra first learns that Marie is unhappy as Frank’s wife. Such a candid disclosure makes Alexandra uncomfortable, however, and as most people do in uncomfortable situations, she chooses to ignore Marie’s troubles.

Alexandra is not immune from such human foibles. In part 4, “The White Mulberry Tree,” Alexandra is blind to Emil and Marie’s love for each other. Their passion is accentuated by the birth of Amedee’s first child and his sudden death from appendicitis. Unable to keep away from Marie any...

(The entire section is 2,439 words.)