Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Oh Willa–Your Pioneers!

''The Song of the Lark ''Oil on canvas, 1884

”The Song of the Lark ”Oil on canvas, 1884 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I continually research my own pioneer novel-in-progress, I return to favorites for inspiration.  Having reread most of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House of the Prairie series, I am moving on to more grown-up fare such as Willa Cather’s Midwest trilogy of My Antonia, Song of the Lark, and O Pioneers!

Cather’s writing continually surprises me with its subtle acuity. She follows the nineteenth century omniscient style of narration that is no longer in vogue, yet as I read her seamless insights into each character, I realize I am easily visiting each character’s thoughts while still in the scene. That’s art.  It adds so much more dimension to the reading  that I find myself slipping from third person limited into omni in my own writing. *Sigh* Maybe I shouldn’t be reading Willa Cather–at least until I get my manuscript’s revisions tidied back up.

In that regard, unless you have your own concerns about being overly influenced while writing your own pioneer epic, I suggest rereading or experiencing Willa Cather’s O Pioneer!

Cover of "O Pioneers!"

Cover of O Pioneers!


It’s good stuff.  Really good stuff. Setting, for instance.  Turn to page 97 of your Random House Vintage Classic version and feast:

(Part III: Winter Memories: I)

Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put to it to find frost-bitten cabbage-stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintery waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgerows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the roads or in the ploughed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.

Personification, alliteration, imagery galore, tone, diction–it’s a banquet of literary delight.  Cather dedicates this full exposition to set up how this coldest of seasons affects the characters.  Steinbeck did much the same in Grapes of Wrath. Remember the turtle scene?

Sometimes I think we forget the importance of slowly revealing the story in our pressing need to “let’s get on with it” plot modernity mentality. Yet, there is an absolute pleasure in immersing oneself in the cadence of well-placed and balanced words.

Oh Willa–your pioneers keep singing to me of your prairie love through your song of fields, seasonal cadence, and your indelible tribute to those who left their mark upon the land.

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4 thoughts on “Oh Willa–Your Pioneers!

  1. Hurray for the old narrative style! I LOVE it and refuse to become a modern! Laura Ingalls Wilder is so beautiful in it’s simplicity. My Antonia is a masterpiece!

  2. Pingback: Titular Epiphanies | cricketmuse

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