Willa Cather (1873-1947) featured sturdy good characters in at least three of her books: Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! (1913), Ántonia Shimerda in My Ántonia (1918), and Jean Marie Latour and Joseph Vaillant in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
O Pioneers! opens on a winter’s day, 1883, in a fictional town on the Nebraskan prairie. Fifteen-year-old Carl Linstrum is giving a ride in his wagon to Alexandra Bergson, four years his senior, and her little brother Emil as they return to their adjacent farms. The Linstrums and Bergsons emigrated from Sweden years earlier to attempt a new life on the American frontier.
At that time and place, God’s good creation placed far greater demands on settlers than settlers did on the land. Today, the Global Technological System increasingly subdues both land and people. Cather recalls that earlier relationship by describing the land as experienced by Carl and friends as they returned from town to homestead:
The little town behind them had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie, and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom. The homesteads were few and far apart; here and there a windmill gaunt against the sky, a sod house crouching in a hollow. But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes.
While Carl’s family and neighbors attempted to impose their demands on the land, the land maintained its integrity and had a greater impact on them. For Carl,
It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness (both quotes from (O Pioneers!, Vintage Classics, 1992, p. 8).
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