Back in January I was telling you how much I had loved Willa Cather's My Antonia. Here now is another, from the same stable, as it were. Not just because it is another by this great American author but also because it is what I suppose you might call a companion piece. Set -- as was My Antonia -- in Nebraska, Cather's own home state, at the turn of the last century, it is the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants who, as the novel starts, are scraping a living on the harsh plains. In fact the novel opens with the death of the father and his (for its time) almost unthinkable decision to leave the running of the farm in the hands of his daughter Alexandra. There are two older boys, but John Bergson clearly recognises qualities in his daughter which his sons lack. As the novel moves forward through time, we see how wise his decision has been. Alexandra has not only taken on the farm and made a huge success of it, but also has largely brought up her beloved young brother Emil. Only five when the story begins, Emil has developed into a fine, intelligent, thoughtful young man who has gained a college education. As for the land, over the years it has revealed itself to be a much more rich and productive country than the early pioneers had believed. Alexandra has grown older, but remained single, though her two brothers -- neither as successful at farming as their sister -- are now married. The only man Alexandra has ever considered allowing into her independent single life is Carl, the son of a neighbour, who has long ago left the area to work many miles away. The novel is Alexandra's story, but it is also Emil's -- Emil, who falls in love with the beautiful, but married, Marie, a young Bohemian girl who was his childhood sweetheart. You will have to read the book to find out how these people's lives turn out -- there is some happiness but also some sorrow, and I shed a few tears at the end.
Like My Antonia, this novel is a wonderful document of the history of the United States. I once spent a year in Iowa, and often used to think about those early pioneers -- how they survived the extremes of climate, how strange those endless, empty plains it must have seemed to them after their safe little European homes, how they must have struggled to survive. Here indeed there is the contrast between the very early days of settlement and the relative comfort and luxury that was established within a very short time -- the novel was published in 1913, and it was strange to me to realise that by then people were able to telephone to each other! Alexandra is a wonderful character, strong, optimistic, but quite innocent in many ways, though events force her to lose that innocence as she grows older.
Do read this. It was only Cather's second novel, but my goodness, she does write so beautifully.