O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

Summary from Goodreads:

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

Where has Willa Cather been all my life? Until fairly recently, I had barely even heard of her, but now I want to read everything she has ever written. In preparation for my road trip across the USA I have been reading a lot of American literature and I picked up O Pioneers! after a dear friend and former colleague recommended it to me. In short, I thought it was beautifully written, both simple and epic, and so perfectly captured the harsh, windswept prairielands of Nebraska.

Reading this book, it was clear to me that Cather knew the land which she describes intimately, and felt a strong connection to it. Her descriptions of the prairielands are so vivid and rich, as are her portrayals of the various peoples (Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians, French, etc.) who settled there. As enamoured as I was with the richness of these descriptions, I did still feel that the story was a little, I don’t know, undercooked? Some of the characters felt a bit one-dimensional and I didn’t really care for the melodramatic finale. Honestly, I would happily have read 600+ pages about farmers planting crops and fighting the elements, but tragic love triangles? Meh.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I disliked this book. The aspects of O Pioneers! that I loved, I really loved. This was my first Cather, and it certainly won’t be my last, as I felt a real connection to her writing that left me craving more. I have a good feeling that her other works, such as My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, will be more fully formed and even more to my liking. At least I hope so.

Have you read O Pioneers? Or anything else by Willa Cather? What do you think of her writing? Would love to hear from you. Sorry it’s been so long since I last posted. 

~Anna

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Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna