Willa Cather’s novel One of Ours is a complex, slow-moving, but beautiful character study set before and during World War I. It follows Claude Wheeler as he passes from youth to manhood and from naïveté to knowledge. Although Cather follows other characters for brief times, she does so primarily to round out her portrait of Claude’s world. At each stage of his quest for selfhood, Cather shows the context of Claude’s life in intricate detail. His family and the surrounding Nebraska farmland shape him in the novel’s first half; the surrounding troops and the ship carrying them to war form him in the last half. The patriotism of Claude and his fellow soldiers, as well as their innocent (and at times ignorant) desire to do good deeds, makes the war effort seem like a noble cause. However, it ends—as real war always does—with death, leaving Claude Wheeler and the novel as a whole suspended in a state of emotional incompleteness and pain.
One of Ours documents the period of Claude Wheeler’s life from his college years in Nebraska to his death in the trenches during World War I. Claude is a young man who is constantly searching for his place in life, needing to feel that he belongs and that his life should have some clear purpose. Although he is an extremely competent farmer, far better in fact than either of his brothers or his father, he is not fulfilled by farm life, and though he is a good student, he believes that the church-affiliated college he attends does not provide the intellectual challenge that he needs. Only when he matriculates in a European history course at the state university does he begin to find his place.
His happiness does not last. When his father buys a farm in Colorado, management of the Nebraska farm falls to Claude. Though Claude accepts this responsibility without complaint, he is again unhappy and silently resentful.
Marriage seems a solution for his narrowed horizons, but even in this Claude is unfortunate. He comes to discover that Enid, a pretty girl whom he has known all of his life, has interests far different from his own: the Church, prohibition, and (as her father half jokingly warns before their marriage) vegetarianism. When Enid leaves Claude temporarily to nurse Carrie, her missionary sister who has fallen ill in China, Claude’s world once again collapses.
This episode coincides with the outbreak of World War I, and Claude, his mother, and his father eagerly follow the newspaper accounts. For Claude’s father, the war means rising wheat prices and a chance for quick profits; for Claude, it is a chance to devote himself unselfishly to a cause. Despite the influenza epidemic which sweeps his troopship, despite the manifold horrors of the battlefield, he believes that at last he has a mission. He dies a hero, “believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be.”
Claude Wheeler is a young man living on a farm near Frankfort, Nebraska. He has no confidence in any of his abilities or his physical appearance and frequently makes reference to his own deficiencies. Above all else, he wants to go away to study. Because of his family’s beliefs, he first attends Temple University, a religious school in Lincoln. Eventually, he manages to enroll in special classes at Nebraska State University, also in Lincoln.
While there, he befriends a student, Julius Ehrlich, and meets the Ehrlich family, who intrigues him with their intellectual lives. Claude indulges in contrasting them with his own family and friends. Growing up on a farm, he has known primarily other farmers, most of whom were, like Ernst Havel, immigrants to the United States.
Just as Claude is doing well at the university, his studies are cut short when his father, Nat, announces that he has purchased a ranch in Colorado. Nat tells Claude that he will begin living most of the time on the ranch and will take Claude’s youngest brother, Ralph, with him. Claude is told to drop out of college, manage the Nebraska farm, and care for his mother. Bayliss, Claude and Ralph’s brother, is a well-known banker in Frankfort.
Claude complies with his father’s orders, and he does a good job running the farm, introducing modern methods. One day, he is severely injured while driving the mule team; the mules had been frightened by a loud noise. Claude’s face is cut, leading to erysipelas, a skin disorder. During convalescence, a childhood friend named Enid Royce begins visiting him. He enjoys her company. After a short courtship, the two marry. On the first night of their marriage, she asks him to sleep elsewhere.
About one year later, Enid’s sister, a missionary in China, gets sick and begs for a family member to come to China to attend to her. Enid, in an unhappy and unconsummated marriage, quickly volunteers. Claude is not sad to see her go.
News of political conflicts in Europe begin to filter through to Claude and the others around Frankfort. Claude enlists in the...
(The entire section is 866 words.)