O Pioneers!
O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 author Willa Cather
Willa Cather
Willa Seibert Cather was an American author who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours , a novel set during World War I...

. It was written in part when Cather was living in Cherry Valley, New York
Cherry Valley (town), New York
Cherry Valley is a town in Otsego County, New York, USA. The population was 1,266 at the 2000 census.Within the Town of Cherry Valley is a village, also called Cherry Valley...

, with Isabelle McClung and was completed at the McClungs' home in Pittsburgh. The book is number 83 on the American Library Association
American Library Association
The American Library Association is a non-profit organization based in the United States that promotes libraries and library education internationally. It is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 62,000 members....

's list of most frequently banned or challenged books.

Plot introduction

O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden borders with Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund....

 immigrants in the farm country near the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska
Nebraska is a state on the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. The state's capital is Lincoln and its largest city is Omaha, on the Missouri River....

, at the turn of the 20th century. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland when her father dies, and she devotes her life to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time when other immigrant families are giving up and leaving the prairie
Prairies are considered part of the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome by ecologists, based on similar temperate climates, moderate rainfall, and grasses, herbs, and shrubs, rather than trees, as the dominant vegetation type...

. The novel is also concerned with two romantic relationships, one between Alexandra and family friend Carl Linstrum and another between Alexandra's brother Emil and the married Marie Shabata.

Plot summary

The book is divided into five parts, each of which has numerous (unnumbered) chapters.

Part I - The Wild Land

On a windy day in Hanover, Nebraska, Alexandra Bergson is with her five-year-old brother Emil. Emil's little kitten has climbed a telegraph pole and is afraid to come down. Alexandra finds her neighbor and friend Carl Linstrum, who retrieves the kitten. In the general store, Alexandra finds Emil with Marie Tovesky who is two years older than Emil. Marie's father has brought her from Omaha
Omaha may refer to:*Omaha , a Native American tribe that currently resides in the northeastern part of the U.S. state of Nebraska-Places:United States* Omaha, Nebraska* Omaha, Arkansas* Omaha, Georgia* Omaha, Illinois* Omaha, Texas...

. Alexandra's father is dying, and he wishes that she run the farm after he is gone. They later visit Crazy Ivar, who advises them to keep their hogs clean. When the Linstrums are leaving, Oscar and Lou want to leave too, but neither their mother nor Alexandra will. After visiting villages downwards to see how they are getting on, she talks her brothers Oscar and Lou into mortgaging the farm to buy more land, in hopes of ending up as rich landowners.

Part II - Neighboring Fields

Sixteen years later, the farms are now prosperous. Alexandra and her brothers have divided up their inheritance, and Emil has just returned from college. The Linstrum farm has failed, and Marie, now married to Frank Shabata, has bought it. During a Bergson family get-together, Carl Linstrum shows up, having failed in a job in Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

. He is on his way to Alaska
Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area. It is situated in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, with Russia further west across the Bering Strait...

, but decides to stay with Alexandra for a while. There is a growing flirtatious relationship between Emil and Marie, which Carl notices. Lou and Oscar suspect that Carl wants to marry Alexandra, and are resentful that they had to work hard for their farms, but he thinks he can marry into a farm. After this, Alexandra and her brothers are no longer speaking. Then Carl, recognizing a problem, decides to leave for Alaska. At the same time, Emil announces he is leaving for a job in Mexico City
Mexico City
Mexico City is the Federal District , capital of Mexico and seat of the federal powers of the Mexican Union. It is a federal entity within Mexico which is not part of any one of the 31 Mexican states but belongs to the federation as a whole...

. Alexandra is left alone.

Part III - Winter Memories

Alexandra spends the winter alone, except for occasional visits from Marie, whom she visits with Mrs. Lee. She also begins to have mysterious dreams.

Part IV - The White Mulberry Tree

Emil returns from Mexico City. His best friend, Amédée, is now married with a young son. At a fair at the French church, Emil and Marie kiss for the first time. They later confess their illicit love, and Emil determines to leave for law school in Michigan
Michigan is a U.S. state located in the Great Lakes Region of the United States of America. The name Michigan is the French form of the Ojibwa word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake"....

. Before he leaves Amédée dies from a ruptured appendix, and as a result both he and Marie realize what they value most. Before leaving he stops by Marie's farm to say one last goodbye, and they fall into a passionate embrace beneath the white mulberry tree. They stay there for several hours, until Marie's husband, Frank, finds them, and shoots them. He goes off to Omaha
Omaha may refer to:*Omaha , a Native American tribe that currently resides in the northeastern part of the U.S. state of Nebraska-Places:United States* Omaha, Nebraska* Omaha, Arkansas* Omaha, Georgia* Omaha, Illinois* Omaha, Texas...

. Ivar discovers Emil's abandoned horse, leading him to search for the boy and discover the bodies.

Part V - Alexandra

Alexandra has gone off in a rainstorm. Ivar goes looking for her and brings her back home, where she sleeps fitfully and dreams about death. She then decides to visit Frank in Lincoln where he is incarcerated. While in town she walks by Emil's university campus, comes upon a polite young man, and feels better. The next day she talks to Frank in prison. He is bedraggled and can barely speak properly, and she promises to do what she can to see him released; she bears no ill will toward him. She then receives a telegram from Carl, saying he is back. They decide to marry, unconcerned with her brothers' approval.

Characters in O Pioneers!

  • Alexandra Bergson: The main character of the book. A strong-willed and intelligent woman. She was given the farm by her father John Bergson and after 16 years turned it into a very prosperous one. Alexandra isn't very adept at sensing peoples feelings or her own. It takes her a long time to realize that she loves Carl Linstrum. She also doesn't sense Emil's growing attraction toward the unhappily married Marie Shabata. She seems easy to forgive as well, as she claims to have no ill will against Frank, despite the fact he savagely murdered her brother. She is about 40 years old in the second part of the book
  • Emil Bergson: Emil, the youngest child of John Bergson, grows up in Alexandra's wealth to become an intelligent, handsome, and athletic person. He has the opportunity to go to college which he undertakes. But tragically he is in love with Marie Shabata who is unhappily married. He leaves for Mexico to try to escape his temptation for Marie. But after a year he returns and cannot resist. He kisses her for the first time and before leaving for law school bids a final goodbye to Marie. But Frank Shabata, Marie's husband, catches them and shoots them both in a bloody rage.
  • Carl Linstrum: A former neighbor of the Bergson's. He is fifteen years old at the outset of the novel. After leaving the homestead he apprentices as an engraver and lives in New York city. He becomes disillusioned with urban life and returns to see Alexandra before he wanders to Alaska.
  • Marie Tovesky: A Bohemian girl who crossed paths with the Bergson's as a child and then takes up one of Alexandra's homesteads. She embodies the passion and romance of the prairie.
  • Joe Tovesky, Marie's uncle.
  • John Bergson, Alexandra's father. He owns 640 acres (2.6 km²) of land.
  • Lou, John's son. He is seventeen years old at the outset of the novel.
  • Oscar, John's son. He is nineteen years old at the outset of the novel.
  • Uncle Otto, John's brother who gave in and left for Chicago
    Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

    , where he has been working in a bakery.
  • Mrs. Bergson, stout and proud: she desires all the comforts of the old country and achieves it in a new and indifferent land.
  • Ivar, he reads the Bible
    The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

     and has a mystic quality about him. He also has a great affinity to animals, especially birds.
  • Signa, The favorite, and youngest of Alexandra's Swedish servants.
  • Barney Flinn, Alexandra's foreman.
  • Mrs. Hiller, a neighbor.
  • Nelse Jensen, Signa's suitor, then husband.
  • Annie Lee, Lou's wife's maiden name.
  • Mrs. Lee, Lou's mother-in-law.
  • Milly, 15 years old; Annie's daughter. She plays the organ and the piano.
  • Stella, Annie's younger daughter.
  • Frank Shabata, Marie's husband. He likes to read the Sunday newspaper about rich people's bold gestures. His character is a representation of anger and irrationality on the prairie. He also killed his wife Marie and Emil in a drunken rage,and was sent to prison in Lincolin, Nebraska. He regrets doing what he did and he looks destroyed when Alexandra goes to visit him.
  • Albert Tovesky, Marie's father; an adviser in Omaha
    Omaha may refer to:*Omaha , a Native American tribe that currently resides in the northeastern part of the U.S. state of Nebraska-Places:United States* Omaha, Nebraska* Omaha, Arkansas* Omaha, Georgia* Omaha, Illinois* Omaha, Texas...

  • Amédée Chevalier, a Frenchman, friends with Emil.
  • Angélique Chevalier, Amédée's wife.
  • Father Duchesne, the French priest.
  • Raoul Marcel
  • Moses Marcel, Raoul's father.
  • Jean Bordelau
  • Jan Smirka, Man who Frank thinks Marie had an affair with.
  • Mr. Schwartz, the warden at the prison where Frank is being kept.

Major themes

  • Pioneers in Nebraska.
  • Love and marriage.
  • Feminism.
  • Realism.
  • Isolation.
  • Temptation is deadly.

Allusions to other works

  • Marie is first described as being dressed as a Kate Greenaway
    Kate Greenaway
    Catherine Greenaway , known as Kate Greenaway, was an English children's book illustrator and writer, who spent much of her childhood at Rolleston, Nottinghamshire. She studied at what is now the Royal College of Art in London, which at that time had a separate section for women, and was headed by...

     character would be.
  • In the first chapter, the children are said to be reading Hans Christian Andersen
    Hans Christian Andersen
    Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish author, fairy tale writer, and poet noted for his children's stories. These include "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Snow Queen," "The Little Mermaid," "Thumbelina," "The Little Match Girl," and "The Ugly Duckling."...

     and "the Swiss family Robinson
    The Swiss Family Robinson
    -History:Written by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss and edited by his son Johann Rudolf Wyss, the novel was intended to teach his four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance...

  • In the fourth chapter, Alexandra is said to like to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet and educator whose works include "Paul Revere's Ride", The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline...

    's poetry.
  • Many copies of the book are accompanied with the poem, "Pioneers! O Pioneers!
    Pioneers! O Pioneers!
    "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" is a poem by the American poet Walt Whitman. It was first published in Leaves of Grass in 1865. The poem was written as a tribute to Whitman's fervor for the great Westward expansion in the United States that led to things like the California Gold Rush and exploration of the...

    " by Walt Whitman
    Walt Whitman
    Walter "Walt" Whitman was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse...

    , which is said to be where the title comes from.
  • The romance between Emil and Marie and their death alludes to the similarly tragic lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe
    Pyramus and Thisbe
    Pyramus and Thisbe are two characters of Roman mythology, whose love story of ill-fated lovers is also a sentimental romance.The tale is told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.-Plot:...

    , from Ovid
    Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

    's book Metamorphoses. Clear evidence of this occurs on page 173 where "the white mulberries...were covered with a dark stain", directly corresponding to Ovid: nam color in pomo est.

Allusions to actual history

  • In the first chapter of Part II, Emil and Marie mention John Huss.
  • In the first chapter of Part II, Emil's letters are said to mention Porfirio Díaz
    Porfirio Díaz
    José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori was a Mexican-American War volunteer and French intervention hero, an accomplished general and the President of Mexico continuously from 1876 to 1911, with the exception of a brief term in 1876 when he left Juan N...

  • In the second chapter of Part II, Lou mentions William Jennings Bryan
    William Jennings Bryan
    William Jennings Bryan was an American politician in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. He was a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as its candidate for President of the United States...


Literary significance and criticism

In a 1921 interview for Bookman, Willa Cather said, "I decided not to 'write' at all, - simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I'd forgotten."

External links

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