O Pioneers! by Willa Cather


After a couple of audiobook choices that didn’t work well, I listened to this classic. I recall reading My Ántonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop, but I believe this one was new for me. What a pleasant voice to have in my ears as I puttered around the kitchen and did other chores.

Alexandra Bergson is the central character, the only daughter of an early Nebraska farmer, the only one of his children capable of running the farm. She does have the intelligence and will to overrule her two foolish brothers and her decisions give them all a good life by dent of purchasing land when others didn’t. Part of her motivation is to enable the youngest brother to have the option of leaving the land to go to school and make his own choices. At the same time the author is extolling the wonders of creating farms out of this land, her main character is working to make it possible for a loved one to leave.

The characters are irresistible:  old Ivar who never wears shoes and occasionally has spells, but is an animal whisperer; Marie, a cheerful energetic soul who is a friend to Alexandra; Emil, the youngest son who is intelligent and handsome; Mrs. Lee, the mother-in-law of one of Alexandra’s dull brothers whose love of the old ways is indulged in Alexandra’s house. There’s a distinction made at one point between the dour Swedes like Alexandra’s family and the fun-loving Bohemians like Marie.

The limitations for women is brought into high relief when at the advanced age of 40 Alexandra is thinking of marrying an old love who returned to the area. Her brothers objected to the possibility of land going out of the family despite the fact that they had previously divided up the land and she had clear title to land on her own. The brothers spoke to Carl, her old love, and he left again. Alexandra severed her relationships with the brothers.

One reflection Alexandra made about the land was pretty chilling for me. When asked how she and the neighbors had made such successful lives on their farms, she said,

We hadn’t any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right and then all at once it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself and it was so big, so rich that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still.

The book The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan describes the mining of land when wheat prices were high that left the land vulnerable to turn to dust when the inevitable drought came. Parts of Nebraska suffered that fate in the 1930s.

Willa Cather, O Pioneers! written in 1913, has various publishers, approx. 180 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.



  • The quote about the farmland’s joke is a remarkable turn of a phrase. I have read a number of accounts of settlers staking their claims. It is amazing that some of them were able to “sit still” and be successful. The father of Laura Ingalls Wilder was a farmer who lacked the patience to wait for the land to “wake”; repeatedly pulling up stakes and relocating his struggling family. Their trials make my pandemic moment of 2020 seem like a walk in the park.

    • The father of the Alexandra character struggled mightily, and when he died had just paid his debt. That “sit still” statement was true only for a short time, I think. The author was in New York when she wrote this, which I’d say added to her rosy take.


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