O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by Willa Cather detailing life on the American Great Plains in Nebraska during pioneer times and the struggles of one immigrant woman to survive and prosper under these frontier conditions. The novel depicts the social world of that time and place, and especially the land, as much as it tells a story. The title is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman entitled Pioneers! O Pioneers!.
Willa Cather's frontier novels
Willa Cather's novels about frontier life on the Great Plains in Nebraska were strongly autobiographical, with characters and events and, especially, the ovarall picture of life and times based on her own personal experiences and recollections. And this is certainly true of O Pioneers!.
As much as a plot or storyline, O Pioneers! presents us with a picture of the social world of that place and time. Thus it is useful for readers of the novel to be aware of the general historical and social situation which underlies the novel and how the history of the area contributed to the formation of the world it depicts.
The Territory of Nebraska was created in 1854 by the Kansas Nebraska Act out of the great land area of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Prior to that time, whites had shown little interest in settling the area. Although the Oregon Trail carried emigrants across Nebraska along the Platte River in the 1840s, the Great Plains were considered to be a region to be got through on the way to more fertile fields in California and Oregon.
As interest in the building of the transcontinental railroad developed, so too did interest in settlement of the lands of the Great Plains. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided the legal framework. And when, in 1865, the Union Pacific Rail Road began laying tracks across the Nebraska plains en route to the link-up at Promontory, Utah, a great impetus to settlement resulted. Settlement of the region was heavily promoted by numerous interested parties in addition to the railroads. And many of the early settlers of the Great Plains, especially in Nebraska, were immigrants, led by Germans, Scandinavians, and Bohemians, with some Russians thrown into the mix.
It is with the life and work of one of these immigrants, the fictional Alexandra Bergson, that O Pioneers! is concerned.
Alexandra Bergson, the young adult daughter of immigrant Swedish settlers, finds herself, upon the death of her father, in charge of the family homestead on the Nebraska Divide in the late 19th century.
A few years later, hard times come to the Divide and many of the settlers on the frontier call it quits. While others are leaving, the Bergson's, at Alexandra's insistence, mortgage their holding to buy more land with the prices at a low point.
After the passage of several years, farms on the Divide are prospering, especially Alexandra's holdings.
Carl Linstrum, a childhood friend of Alexandra's, whose family left the Divide years earlier during the hard times, returns. He is on his way to try his luck in the Alaska gold fields. Carls' presence reveals deep divisions within the Bergson family. Lou and Oscar, Alexandra's older brothers, are especially concerned about the disposition of Alexandra's holdings should she and Carl wed. Meanwhile, Alexandra's younger brother Emil has become infatuated with Marie Shabata, a former childhood friend of his, now married.