Saturday, March 8, 2008

1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather

I’ve lived in Nebraska and know well the rolling landscape, the hard-working but easy-going people who farm and ranch the land there. Willa Cather’s prose, as far as I’m concerned, reflects perfectly their characters. That is the first impression that a reader takes away from One of Ours. And its protagonist, Claude Wheeler, reminds me of young people I’ve met there, who love their state and their families, but somehow don’t quite fit in. While Cather was writing about the turn of the 20th century, the story could indeed have taken place over 50 years later.

Claude’s pragmatic father doesn’t see the necessity, for a farmer, of too much education. Thus, Claude has to forego completing his college degree, and forsaking he friends, much different from those at home, he’s made in Lincoln. His mother, a more or less fundamentalist Christian (although the movement itself within Christianity hadn’t yet begun), is quite sensitive to Claude’s moods and aspirations; her emotional pain on behalf of her son is almost physical. Claude, as would be expected of a young man his age, marries—only to have his wife go to China to help her sister. His emotional desolation is nearly complete; he wonders if that’s all there is to life—getting up in the morning, working, going to bed at night. It may satisfy friends his age who ask nothing better than to farm their own land, but Claude longs for something more—what, he’s not sure but something.

Then World War I erupts in Europe. Claude and his mother follow the war through the newspapers and maps they pore over together. When the United States enters the war, Claude enlists—and finds his place in the world.

Cather describes the effect of the war on France and its people. She also writes about little-known facts, such as the toll sickness took of the soldiers on the way over, many dying from pneumonia. She has interesting details about what it was like for the soldiers to live under wartime conditions—bathing in polluted water in shell holes was a nice touch. There is some description—not much—of the fighting but it fits in with her story. Clearly she was more interested in what happened to the people, both French and the Allied soldiers, than she was in the details of the fighting itself.

The last pages break your heart. I think you have to be a stone to be unmoved.

For a relatively short book—371 pages in my edition, One of Ours is beautifully evocative of a time, a place, and a young man’s successful search for himself. One of the best of the early Pulitzer winners.

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