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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Set in Nebraska during the last decades of the nineteenth century, O Pioneers! portrays the growth of a new country and people, showing how during the course of sixteen years a harsh "iron" landscape became a vibrant and beautiful country. The action of the various immigrant groups who helped settle the plains of the Midwest — the Swedes, Norwegians, Bohemians, and French who came to Nebraska in the 1870s and the 1880s lured by the promise of cheap land and fertile soil — is placed in the larger context of the human desire to create civilization in a new landscape. Interwoven into the novel's celebration of the pioneer spirit is another story of very different tenor and tone about the tragic passion of star-crossed young lovers whose desire cannot be controlled by social convention. Although these two main plots were derived from "Alexandra" and "The White Mulberry Tree," stories written at different times, the novel is coherently structured in five parts, with the first three developing the major themes of the land and passion while the fourth deals with death and the fifth with the theme of cyclic rebirth.

"The Wild Land," the first book of the novel, begins at a time when the untamed prairie still overwhelms the beginnings of society — a few impermanent-looking dwellings, some feeble attempts at farming, and a tiny town that seems in danger of perishing. The pioneers are grappling with the land, the weather, and a burden of debt. In spite of the hardships and disillusionments of those early years, Alexandra Bergson, daughter of an immigrant Swedish farmer, faces the land with courage and seems willing to carry on the task of turning it into a place where life can flourish. In "Neighboring Fields," the second book, the story leaps ahead sixteen years to a time when the prairie has become a vast checkerboard of wheat and corn where roads run at right angles, telephone wires hum above the fences, and windmills harness the energy of nature. Alexandra's struggle, carried out against the poorer judgement and weaker wills of her brothers, has been successful. Her holdings have increased by many acres, her land yields the best crops, and she owns the biggest house. More important, her foresight and imagination, coupled with hard work and faith in the soil, have resulted in her spiritual unification with the prairie, over which she presides aglow with health and prosperity. Alive to nature but somewhat insensitive to human emotions, Alexandra fails to see that her youngest brother, Emil, and a young Bohemian neighbor, Marie Shabata, are becoming dangerously attracted to each other.

"Winter Memories," set between the fulfillment of harvest and the passion of spring, contrasts Marie and Alexandra as they ponder the directions their lives have taken. Marie, a sensual woman attempting to suppress her feelings for Emil and to resign herself to a loveless future with Frank, responds to the frozen winter landscape with a deadened spirit. Alexandra instead becomes...

(The entire section is 756 words.)