Day 21): U is for Unhappy: Choose a book with an Unhappy ending
O Pioneers! (Great Plains Trilogy #1) by Willa Cather
I was first introduced to the work of Willa Cather when one summer I was trying to read through a list of classics provided by Barnes and Noble. (The same list that lead me to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Of course I never finished it:
However, two of the book I read during that time were My Antonia and O Pioneers!. I read O Pioneers! second, not knowing it was the first book and while I enjoyed My Antonia I loved O Pioneers! more.
And it makes me really upset that no one knows about this book.
I KNOW! It is a fantastic book but no one knows about it. It is hard to even purchase as I wanted to buy a copy for my friend, but amazon didn’t have it or Barnes & Nobles. Crazy! So why is this book fantastic? Let’s take a look.
So the book is just under 200 pages and divided into three parts.
PART I: THE WILD LAND
The story takes place in Nebraska, the Bergsons are a Swedish family of six who immigrated to America for a better life, but found the prairie not as promised. The father, John, went into serious debt, but was finally able to pay it off. He owns six hundred and forty acres of the original homestead, and three hundred and twenty acres given to him by his brother when he pulled out. Just as it seemed he might be able to tame the land, he becomes ill and at age 46, is going to die.
For weeks he has been thinking what to do next, when he decides that everything must be left to his daughter Alexandra to control.
This book was published in 1913, but takes place in 1883. And even though he has two sons who come before Alexandra he recognizes in her his own spirit. While his sons Lou and Oscar are hardworking they just don’t have the business acumen.
“It was Alexandra who read the papers and followed the markets, and who learned by the mistakes of their neighbors. It was Alexandra who could always tell about what it cost to fatten each steer, and who could guess the weight of a hog before it went on the scales closer than John Bergson himself. Lou and Oscar were industrious, but he could never teach them to use their heads about their work.” pg. 15
On his deathbed, John calls all the kids together and makes them promise to keep the land and listen to Alexandra, there will be no quarreling. When each wishes to marry they can divide the land, but until then they must follow Alexandra.
Even though the boys do not like being put under their sister, they agree to their father’s wishes.
Six months later, the Bergsons invite their friend and neighbor Carl Linstrum to visit “Crazy” Ivar. Lou and Oscar make fun of him,
But Alexandra values his advice and knowledge of animals.
Ivar suffers from some kind of mental affliction, one not stated as most likely at that time they had no name for it. Sometimes he spouts wisdom, other days nonsense. He likes to live as far away from people as he can. While he suffers from these eccentricities his knowledge of animals is without competition. He has a pond where all kinds of birds come to visit, as they know he will not shoot them, as he has an aversion to guns.
Now one of the reasons this book is so good is the character of Alexandra. While others see the craziness of Ivan and brush him off, she listens to his advice and follows it, it turning out very well. What a person looks like, or acts like doesn’t matter to her; she values their hard work, their wisdom, and their heart. And she doesn’t care what others think of her.
After their father’s death, the Bergsons clan did well.
But then the drought came, an with it three years of nothing but failure.
It is at this time we see a divided family as to what to do next. Many people have left the “promises” of the prairie to follow the “promises” of St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, Alaska, etc.
Carl Limstrom comes to tell Alexandra that his family is leaving to St. Louis. This is heartbreaking, as Alexandra and him have fallen in love. Alexandra doesn’t want him to go, but Carl won’t have him and his family be a drag on their finances, after all, Carl is no farmer. But Carl promises that he won’t forget her but will work hard for her.
“I’ll write as long as I live…And I’ll be working for you as much as for myself, Alexandra. I want to do something you’ll like and be proud of. I’m a fool here, but I know I can do something!” pg. 34
This is the first part of what makes this book so sad. Alexandra doesn’t care about that Carl, she just wants you! But Alexandra understands how you feel and how you don’t want to enter a marriage being a drain on your wife, you want to be equal.
And even though you really want Carl to stay with Alexandra, you respect him for not wanting to use her inheritance and enter the relationship having her take care of him. He knows Alexandra is the greatest thing in the world and wants to show her he is worthy of her love.
But poor Alexandra
“[To Carl’s retreating form] Since you have been here, ten years now, I have never really been lonely.” pg 35
The boys are worried about what will happen next with the sweet potatoes seeming to be the only thing really living on. They want to sell out and move to the cities, where opportunity really is. Or trade their land for the river as that land is much better than the kind they have.
Alexandra of course doesn’t go on feelings, whispers, or what others tell her to do. She thinks on it long and hard, researching into what would be the best decision.
She and her younger brother Emil travel to the river to examine the land. After reviewing everything and thinking on it; she decides that the thing to do is to mortgage their land with the bank and buy up as much land as they can. The boys of course are skeptical of this plan. Six more years of working off a loan? And what if the land prices don’t soar, what if the drought continues on, what if, what if?
But Alexandra sees the way to go:
“The men in town who are buying up other people’s land don’t try to farm it. They are the men to watch, in a new country. Let’s try to do it like the shrewd ones and not like the stupid fellows.” pg. 43
The boys know this will be going against all the others and they don’t want to be viewed by others as crazy.
But Alexandra is certain, and they follow her. Alexandra is pleased as she watches the land knowing that the future is stirring.
PART II: NEIGHBORING FIELDS
It has been sixteen years since the death of John Bergson, now being 1899. In the years that have passed, his wife has passed on as well. The land is producing much, telephone wires zig zag the prairie, and the area is thickly populated as more have arrived to stake their home there too.
Emil has achieved Alexandra’s dream and gone on to attending the university and doing well in sports. He is tall, handsome, charming and all the girls in the area wish for a moment with him, as brief as it could be.
But he isn’t interested in any of them.
Their old friend Marie Tovesky, now Mrs. Shabata, a Bohemian, has moved back to the prairie she used to visit as a young girl now a neighbor to the Bergsons.
And how are the Bergson’s doing? Any one could tell you that they have the richest farm on the Divide, and that was all due to the woman farmer, Alexandra.
One of the things I like about Alexandra is that Cather created a character that is intelligent, strategical, yet still feminine. With today’s modern works it always feels like an either/or situation. Either they are pretty or smart. They are intelligent and masculine or an airhead and feminine. Alexandra has extreme intelligence but also enjoys doing housework, baking, and as beautiful as she is brainy.
The older brothers are married and have their own sections of land as they began families, but Alexandra has the most of land and wealth. Emil comes back and forth between Alexandra’s home and school; and there is one more addition.
No not Carl.
He is still out trying to make his fortune. No, when Ivar lost his land, Alexandra opened her home to him. Such a compassionate person, not caring what others think of him or her for having him live in the home; all that matters that there is a soul in need.
Ivar comes to Alexandra one day, afraid that people will send him to the asylum for being different, but Alexandra doesn’t care. She knows what it is like to be talked about because you do things differently.
“Don’t come to me again telling me what people say. Let people go on talking as they like, and we will go on living as we think best. ” pg. 60
A lot has changed in the sixteen years with modernity. A lot of the old ways of living and being are no longer accepted. In the family, Oscar’s wife will not allow any Swedish to be spoken in the house, so when they visit the relatives only English can be spoken.
Alexandra has not married, her heart still pining after the only one who ever truly understood her, but enjoys being an aunt and looking after her brother’s children. But as she is the wealthiest of the whole clan, she often becomes caught in a game between her scheming brothers and sister-in-laws, as they all desire different things.
One day she is with her nieces in the flower garden when a tall, handsome stranger comes on the prairie. It is Carl!
Carl is on his way to Seattle and then to Alaska to go gold prospecting. He stopped by to say hi and Alexandra is thrilled as she has missed him so much. The brothers aren’t as they are worried that instead of a gold prospector he might be a gold digger and after Alexandra’s wealth.
Carl admits that he had hoped to present himself as better, worthy of Alexandra, but he has nothing.
“You see…measured by your standards I’m a failure. I couldn’t buy even one of your cornfields. I’ve enjoyed a great many things, but I’ve nothing to show for it all.” pg. 77
That doesn’t matter to Alexandra of course, but Carl must prove himself.
I think Carl and Alexandra are just the cutest couple. Carl is so sweet to her and pretty much understands her (except for the having to prove himself thing because she does not care) and doesn’t find any measure of her odd or not right.
“I wonder whether I should ever be able to tell you all that I was thinking up there. It’s a strange thing, Alexandra; I find it easy to be frank with you about everything under the sun-except yourself!’
‘You are afraid of hurting my feelings, perhaps.’ Alexandra looked at him thoughtfully.
‘No, I’m afraid it would give you a shock. You’ve seen yourself for so long in the dull minds of the people around you, that if I were to tell you how you seem to me, it would startle you. But you must see that you astonish me.” pg. 83
Carl and Alexandra are just perfect:
I want them to get together!!!!!
Carl and Alexandra go to Marie’s and spend time with her being interrupted by her husband. No two people could be more horribly matched. Marie is light and fun, while her husband Frank is jealous, depressing, and unfriendly.
They meet when Marie was at school and she thought Frank was handsome, brooding, and romantic. Her father did not want them to marry, and nothing makes two people “fall in love” faster than when they are forbidden to.
She was sent to a convent, but as soon as she turned 18 left it and married Frank. Her father bought them the farm and they’ve been unhappy ever since. Marie realized that the Frank she thought she loved was one that was not real, but created in her mind.
Emil and Marie spend lots of time together, as he often helps out with the farm, taking care of things that Frank is too lazy to. But that friendship must end. Emil can’t pretend anymore. He is in love with Marie and wants to be with her, but of course she is married.
Carl and Emil head off to a Catholic fair, where Emil runs into his newly married friend, Amédéé. While they are gone the brothers come to talk to Alexandra about Carl. They wanted Alexandra’s land to be willed to their children when she dies, but Alexandra will not be bullied and will do what she wants with her land.
You have to read what they try and use to talk her out of it. They tell her things like she’s just a woman, she didn’t really do the work “even though she had the ideas”, the property always belongs too the men, she is too old at 40 to think of marrying, Carl is four years younger than her too young.
But Alexandra holds her ground. She tells them that she owns her land and, she was the driving force that created their wealth, and they can stuff it or go to their lawyers but nothing will come of it.
Alexandra tries to talk to Emil about it, but he is too heartsick he begs her to send home far away, to Mexico.
She agrees and is sad that no one really understands her. She has no one, Marie and Carl being her only friends.
Meanwhile Lou and Oscar go to talk to Carl and convince him he is worthless.
“What a hopeless position you are in, Alexandra!’ [Carl] exclaimed feverishly. ‘It is your fate to be always surrounded by little men. And I am no better than the rest. I am too little to face the criticism of even such men as Lou and Oscar. Yes, I am going away; to-morrow. I cannot even ask you to give me a promise until I have something to offer you. I thought, perhaps, I could do that; but I find I can’t.’
‘What good comes of offering people things they don’t need?’ Alexandra asked sadly. ‘I don’t need money. But I have needed you for a great many years. I wonder why I have been permitted to prosper, if only to take my friends away from me.
‘I don’t deceive myself,’ Carl said frankly. ‘I know that I am going away on my own account. I must make the usual effort. I must have something to show for myself. To take what you would give me, I should have to be a very large man or a very small one, and I am only in the middle class.’
Alexandra sighed. ‘I have a feeling that if you go away, you will not come back. Something will happen to one of us, or to both. People have to snatch at happiness when they can in this world. It is always easier to lose than to find.” pg. 114-115
In one day she loses all the men she cares about.
PART III: WINTER MEMORIES
Winter never feels as cold as when you no longer have those you care about. No longer will Alexandra see Oscar or Lou because of how they treated Carl. She gets letters from Emil and Carl, but it is not the same as having them near.
Mrs. Lee, Lou’s mother-in-law and one of the old timers, loves to visit Alexandra where she can follow in the old ways of living and not be judged. Even though the brothers are no longer welcome, Alexandra still opens her home to the rest of the relatives.
Alexandra brings Emil’s letter for Marie to read, never knowing what interest lies in Marie’s light and happy heart. Marie also gifts Alexandra with a scarf she made for Emil. Little does Alexandra know how Marie really feels on the inside.
Marie’s life has grown exceedingly unhappy. She realizes that she and Frank are not suited for each other at all. She becomes more and more unhappy and folds into herself.
PART IV: THE WHITE MULBERRY TREE
Emil has returned from Mexico at last, and just in time for a big carnival at the Catholic church. Emil runs into his old friend Amédéé, now a father. All the girls flutter around Emil, and when he gives one of his turquoise stones to auctioned it starts an even greater flummox.
Marie is just as crazy about Emil, but he smartly keeps his distance from her.
Frank is angry as he is jealous and wants someone to blame for Marie not caring for him any longer. But the only one who drove the wedge was him and his cruel nature.
When the lights go out, every girl is kissed by their sweetheart and Emil does the one thing he has wished for so long, kisses Marie.
Emil is heartsick and finally asks Marie what has been on his mind for so long, why would you marry Frank? Marie tells him she loved him. Frank was the same now as then, but as a young girl she saw him differently. And now she pays for her heedlessness, stubbornness, and naivety. She begs Emil to leave as she doesn’t want them to sin and she can’t go.
Emil is preparing to leave for Omaha to train as a lawyer, then going on to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before he departs, he stops by to see his friend Amédéé. Amédéé. is in awful pain, completely sick with appendicitis. The doctor tries to take care of him, but it is to late, Amédéé is gone.
Emil stays on for the service and is to set off, but goes back to Marie’s to get one thing of hers to hold on to. When he gets there he discovers her lying in the grass.
Frank comes home and sees Emil’s horse in the barn. He then goes into the field and hears something. As he comes closer he sees two figures in the field and shoots. And then streaks off.
Ivar finds Emil’s mare the next morning all worn out and not taken care of. He knows Emil would never do anything like that unless he was hurt or injured. He goes next door to get help and finds the bodies.
PART V: ALEXANDRA
Alexandra has become so sick with grief she cannot do anything without being instructed. Her boy, her best friend…gone.
She feels horrible for always throwing them together, never thinking what would happen. She feels so cold and alone.
Alexandra goes to see Frank Shabata, but feels no anger at him. Only pity.
But one bright spot arrives, as soon as Carl gets Alexandra’s note on the death he hurries over.
He isn’t as important as he would have wished, but he does have a good buisness starting in the West. The two plan to marry, going West but eventually returning home to the prairie. At last, Alexandra will no longer be alone. A bittersweet ending
I love this book but it is sooo sad. Just full of feelings:
But I love it anyway and read it over and over.
To start the 30 Day Challenge from the beginning, go to It Was a Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451
For the previous post, go to Le Fantôme de l’Opéra
For more on Sarah Dessen, go to I’d Spent Some Time As a Kid Wishing My Name Were Ashley or Katherine, if Only Because It Would Have Made Life Simpler, But My Mom Liked to Tell Me That My Name Was a Litmus Test: Along for the Ride
For more on An Affair to Remember, go to Anything Can Happen: An Affair to Remember (1957)
For the Christmas Carol I choose Silent Night otherwise known in Bohemian as Tichá noc. This song was written in 1816 by Father Joseph Mohr when he was visiting Mariapfarr, Austria.
Two years later, Father Mohr approaches Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist, and asked him to set it to music. Together they performed it during Christmas Eve’s mass.
In 1859, Pastor John Freeman Young translated the song from German to English. Since then the song has been translated into over 140 different languages.
I chose the version by Celtic Woman as I really enjoy that group.
For more on Celtic Woman, go to I Finally Read Moby-Dick
For more Christmas Carols, go to Each Illustration is a Little Story. If You Watch Them, In a Few Minutes They Tell You a Tale: The Illustrated Man