O Pioneers!


Willa Cather

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O Pioneers!: Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Sixteen years after John Bergson’s death, his wife lies beside him under an unrecognizable country. The prairie is now rich with crops and inhabitants, with a rich soil that yields heavy harvests. On a June morning, a young man is at the Norwegian graveyard, mowing the grass with his scythe while whistling a quiet tune. He has been to college, where he played the cornet and ran track.
Each time a character dies, there is a description of the natural world to remind the reader that nature moves on regardless of human deaths or drama. Here, both Mr. and Mrs. Bergson have passed away, but their youngest son, Emil, belongs to the country they immigrated to. He has gone to college and has a chance to make something of himself in the New World, justifying his parents’ and Alexandra’s sacrifices. Yet it’s worth noting that what Emil studied and did at college did not make him rooted to the land in the way that Alexandra’s youth did. It prepared him to be a lawyer or businessman.
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After mowing for the better part of an hour, he hears the rattle of a cart on the road behind him. He assumes that it’s his sister, Alexandra, and he continues working. However, when a contralto voice calls to Emil, he turns to see Marie, a young woman now. She calls to say that she’ll give him a lift if he’s done. Emil persuades her to wait for him as he finishes, and they banter over the histories of their home countries before falling into silence as Emil finishes his mowing. On the ride home, Marie chats about the upcoming wedding of Amédée and Angélique, urging Emil to dance with all the French girls so that their feelings won’t be hurt. Emil reluctantly concedes.
Marie and Emil both belong to the New World, but they’re still able to banter about their home countries, comparing different customs. The silence between them is a little bit tense—and Emil’s reluctance to dance with other girls already hints at his attraction to Marie.
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Emil and Marie drive westward, towards Alexandra’s homestead, which is impressive in its trimness and care for detail. If one were to enter Alexandra’s house, however, one would find it uneven in comfort and somewhat unfinished. The pleasantest rooms are the kitchen and the sitting room, where Alexandra has relocated the furniture from the Bergsons’ old home. Exiting the house and entering the flower garden, there is again the order characteristic of the rest of the farm. Alexandra expresses herself best in the soil, and her true home seems to be the great outdoors.
Alexandra’s farm is better kept than her house. She clearly feels more at home on the land than among the comforts of human society. Her belief in the land looks to have paid off, however—she has succeeded where others had failed in making the land livable.
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