Willa Cather's Great Plains Trilogy


The Great Plains Trilogy by Willa Cather is a classic of American fiction, telling stories of Scandinavian immigrant families coming West to homestead the prairie. The books are semi-autobiographical, inspired by the author’s experiences growing up in Nebraska. Many of the characters are directly inspired by people she knew.

The trilogy consists of:

  • O Pioneers! follows the Bergson family, Swedish-Americans who settle Nebraska. When the family patriarch dies, daughter Alexandra must manage the farm on behalf of her family. However, while Alexandra is successful at farming, managing her younger brothers much more difficult.
  • The Song of the Lark is about Thea Kronberg, a preacher’s daughter in a village in Colorado, and her struggles to become a successful singer. With the help of many teachers, she obtains the artistic career she always dreamed of - but finds it comes with a cost. I found this book the weakest of the trilogy, and would skip it.
  • My Antonia was my favorite of the trilogy. It follows Jim Burden, an orphan who is sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. There he meets Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant full of life. However, the Shimerdas know nothing about farming, and struggle to support themselves in an unfamiliar land.

The Landscape

The landscape is a character in and of itself, lyrically described by Cather. In the beginning, the prairie is wild country. To the immigrants, who often have no knowledge of farming, “this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces.”  At the same time, to them, there is a lot of promise—unoccupied land they could own, something denied them in the old country: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made”. This was the dream of Jeffersonian democracy, with each American a small-scale, self-sufficient farmer, independent through land ownership. The dream soon wakes to reality; there’s a lot of hardship in breaking wild land into something arable. The Shimerdas of My Antonia nearly starve their first winter, eating rotting potatoes and shivering in a dirt house described as more of a cave than a proper house. However, for the farmers who stick out the years and hardship, the land rewards them with financial success. When other farmers give up, Alexandra of O Pioneers! buys their land at a song, expanding the size of her farm.

Nostalgia

Each book begins in the characters’ childhood and watches them grow into adults, and while life was hard then, the books have a certain nostalgia for the way things were. Many of her characters were sketches of people she knew in Nebraska. Contemporary reviewers of Cather’s work praised how it authentically represents life - “Yes, it was exactly like that”. Today, modern reviewers now criticize Cather for for minimizing the hardships of the early years.

The books are at their most vivid when describing childhood. Each character, even minor ones, is given an extensive backstory and personality. As the books progress towards the end, the details and personalities take a backseat to the lives of the main characters. The Song of the Lark and My Antonia follow a more biographical than dramatic structure, and lack a true climax. With no dramatic tension, I found my interest in The Song of The Lark flagging towards the end.

Town vs. Country

As the characters grow up, the action moves into the towns growing along the railroad. There, the main characters find an easier life, but one less free than the life on the farm. In the country, gender roles are less rigid; women are needed to work on the farm as well as men. In town, having women work in the field is seen as shameful. Towns are much more close-minded. In town, the Catholic immigrant girls who go to dances are seen as “loose,” and it is assumed they will meet a bad end.

Perhaps this is a natural reaction to stop their children from growing up. This is, of course, impossible: “When boys and girls are growing up, life can’t stand still, not even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no”. Many go to New York or Chicago to reach heights they could only dream of in the village. However, the main characters do not forget where they have come from; their formative experiences in the country define who they are as people. Even after becoming an important New York lawyer, Jim finds himself most at ease with Antonia’s farmer family rather than the refined population of the city.

Culture Shock

For the immigrants who arrive not knowing English, adjusting to life in America is difficult. The Shimerdas are cheated by their countryman, Kraijek, and lose their savings on a farm in much worse condition than they anticipated. They are not even able to ask their neighbors for advice. Many native-born Americans are equally confused by their neighbors, lost in a cacophony of foreign languages. Jim’s family is given a gift of valuable dried mushrooms from Bohemia, but they throw them out, not knowing what they are.

In some ways, the foreigner’s ignorance of American ways is an advantage. In My Antonia, Antonia is hired out to work as a domestic laborer by her family. To the protestant Americans, they’d rather starve than hire out their daughters. However, the increased income enables the immigrants to become prosperous farmers faster than the WASP Americans. Jim even mentions that the immigrant girls were considered more attractive because they were strong from physical labor.

Relationships

Cather’s characters often find that success comes at the cost of family life. Thea of The Song of the Lark achieves her dream of being a world-renowned opera singer but comments that she has no time for a personal life: “Your work becomes your personal life. You’re not much good until it does.”. To Thea, a personal life gets in the way of pursuing her art - artistic excellence requires single-minded devotion. In the climax of the novel, it is revealed that Thea was forced to choose between visiting her dying mother in Colorado and taking the starring role in an opera in Europe. Thea chose the part. Antonia, in contrast, is not wealthy or famous but spends her entire life as a middling farmer. However, she has her siblings, a devoted husband, and ten children that she loves dearly. Antonia seems happier than Thea, who has become cold, arrogant, and lonely by the end of The Song of the Lark.

Even the successful characters who do get married often have unhappy marriages. Jim prefers to spend his time riding the railways for his job rather than be at home with his wife. Cather’s characters do not contemplate divorce, however, or approve of those who find solace outside of matrimony. In O Pioneers!, Alexandra’s brother Emil is murdered by jilted husband Frank because he has an affair with his wife Marie (Marie is killed too). Frank is sentenced to ten years in the Nebraska state penitentiary. Alexandra, however, blames her brother and Marie for carrying out the affair and promises to try to get Frank out of prison.


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