Novels about Scandinavian immigrants to the United States are common enough to form their own little genre. Karl Moberg’s Emigrants series (1951-61), for example, or Ole Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1924-5). I have almost run out of examples, aside from the one I read recently, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), in which some Norwegian immigrants have trouble making a go of it as farmers in south central Nebraska, then do pretty well but have other troubles.
I do not know Cather well, having read nothing but her 1905 short story collection The Troll Garden. I thought O Pioneers! was a bit on the simple side, told in plain language, plainer than most of The Troll Garden, perhaps meant to fit the plain people, or the Great Plains, with motives and behavior clearly explained and any symbolic material clearly foregrounded so that no one can miss it. Cather famously opposed the use of her novels as school texts, and now I see why – O Pioneers! is perfect for the job. Maybe a little too perfect.
It puzzles me why it was not used in my Great Plains school, not so far from Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska. We were only assigned boy’s books, and O Pioneers! is certainly not one of those. Its heroine, Alexandra Bergson, is the strongest of strong female characters who knows her own mind, follows her own heart, saves the farm, respects difference, and is in tune with the earth:
Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it… She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring. (I, 5)
I hope it is evident enough what I mean by plainness, here mixed with some vague gesturing at meaning.
When I say the symbolism is foregrounded, I mean something like the use of this wild duck:
In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade. They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck. Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, "Sister, you know our duck down there--" Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change. (III, 2)
More earth mothery, but ducks are also used to pull a couple more characters together , linking Alexandra to the bird-loving Crazy Ivar, symbolic representation of the Old Country and its Authentic Ways, and linking brother Emil to the restless, all too tempting Marie. “He snatched the ducks out of her apron” and so on, in Part II, Chapter 5, just after Ivar is mentioned making a pleasing, artful referential loop with the duck theme.
The novel is certainly worth reading and easy to enjoy – for adults, I mean, not poor bored high school students. But I am not convinced that there is that much more to it. Well, there is at least one more thing. I will save the Greek myths for tomorrow.