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Posts Tagged ‘Prairie and Plains’

Early Cover

Early Cover

O Pioneers! Willa Cather. originally published in 1913. For this review I used the Vintage Classic Edition. 1992. Random House. New York. 159 pp.

This is my third reading of O Pioneers! The first was in my hazy teenage years, probably for an English class. I have no particular remembrance of it.

My second reading was in the early 1980s when I enjoyed a re-acquaintance with Willa Cather as I read through all of her books (oddly except for One of Ours, the one for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It remains unread.) The final tragedy is what I took away from that reading, complete with tears. What I forgot entirely was the redemptive quality of the final sequence.

In this, the third reading, I came away with perhaps my deepest connection to the plot of O Pioneers! as well as an underlining of what makes Willa Cather’s writing so powerful and unique—her acute sensitivity to the land. Her specific connection to it, her ability to carefully select language which describes the land with heart-aching resonance, and its singular importance in the pioneer history of the US.

Some might make the observation that her humans seem somewhat less fully formed that that character which is space in Nebraska she calls the Divide. I don’t agree.

It’s hard to know exactly how American pioneers really acted. The stereotypic stoic hearty plainsmen and women, like those painted in O Pioneers may actually be accurate. Whether or not, the main characters, Alexandra Bergson, Emil Bergson, Marie Swoboda and Carl Lundstom, are sufficiently nuanced to carry the story forward comfortably. The story’s flash of passion, which is more “real” than most love affairs in fiction, makes it that much more moving.

The copy I used was a discard from the local library. The reader, judging by the simplistic notes made in the margins, made me think back to my first reading which was probably as shallow as this teenager’s. Still, she/he did notice the prominence of the land as an essential separate character.

And it was delightful to read where her feminist hackles were raised. “Sexist!!” was often penciled into the margins, especially when Alexandra—actually the brains in the Bergson family—was domineered by her rather mentally plodding brothers. It was a valuable reminder to me that I generally gloss over overt male dominance of women which appears so often in books. I’m certain it wasn’t a topic discussed in my mid-60s’ suburban English classroom. Still, while I now usually think of it as representative of another time, it does make me think about how the acceptability of gender inequality remains deeply imbedded. Like so many other uncomfortable truths our society is being forced to face these days, the dismissal inherent in the term “political correctness” used to describe what is actually gross insensitivity quickly shading into covert inequality allows even our national politicians to duck behind this facade of “mere semantics” to refuse to face and begin to remedy their own prejudices and biases.

Of course the beauty of O Pioneers isn’t overshadowed by the ham-handed Bergson boys or their twenty-first century counterparts. In the end, it is the land and Alexandra and Carl’s embracing of it that gives O Pioneers! its lovely glow.

As Alexandra remarks to Carl in the final scene: “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.”

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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker Buck. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. 450 pp.

In the summer of 2007 Rinker Buck, a journalist researching a story in the Black Hills, made a serendipitous detour to visit the Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station, a way stop on Oregon Trail, now restored and maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. It was there, reading a 1850 journal entry describing this Ranch by Margaret Frink, pioneer traveller on the Trail, that Buck caught the bug; like Frink, he too decided to travel west on the Oregon Trail. From April to October, 2008 Buck lives his dream, traveling two thousand miles from St. Joe, MO to Baker City OR, in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules.

the-oregon-trail-9781451659160_lgThis book describes that momentous journey, the first of its kind in over one hundred years. Buck spends that winter voraciously reading, purchases a restored wagon and a team of three Amish mules, designs and has a “trail pup” (a two wheeled covered cart which tagged along carrying supplies) constructed. At some point his brother Nicholas (to whom the book is dedicated) invites himself along accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Olive Oyl. This turns out to be a lucky turn of events; Nick is an expert mule team driver, (true!) who also can swear a blue streak and does, in almost every sentence he utters. He also seems capable of repairing anything, which turns out to be a necessity as along the way axles and wheels break as well as many other parts of their rig. A third “companion”, the ghost of their father who had taken them on another covered wagon expedition as children through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “joins” them at various locations as the journey unspools.

This book chronicles the Bucks’ adventures and the (mostly) helpful people they meet along the way. It talks about breakdowns, the weather, where they camped, eating at roadside truck stops as well as at town parks, the fine art of mule handling and the daily push to make 25 miles between sunup and sundown. In the dreamy hours spent on the wagon seat, Buck reflects on the beauty of the remaining original Trail, and figures out how to get around places where the Trail has been paved into interstate, Buck also grapples with the role in his psyche his larger-than-life father continues to play.

The Oregon Trail is also an illuminating account of the Trail’s history through the personal histories of some of the people who travelled its length. He considers a kaleidoscope of stories the Trail holds: the Mormons, the broke farmers, the women and children, the wayside ranches, the Indians, even the shysters at the Missouri jumping off points, who are there selling second grade wheels and untrained mules as well as all sorts of goods the pioneers are often forced to abandon along the way.

Part memoir, part rousing history, part how-to drive a covered wagon and mule team, Buck offers a panorama of a part of history which seems to have been mislaid in the telling of the American story. And this may be the most important insight of them all:

“The exodus across the plains in the fifteen years before the Civil War, when more than 400.000 pioneers made the trek between the frontier at the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, is still regarded by scholars as the largest single land migration in history. It virtually defined the American character—our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Post Oregon Trail—with a big assist from the Civil War—America was a continental dynamo connected by railroads and the telegraph from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“Seeing the elephant” was the phrase often used by pioneers to describe their Trail journeys. Buck’s trip, 127 years later, shows us what that elephant looks like today.

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