Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One of Ours

One of Ours by Willa Cather won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It's the story of Claude Wheeler, a young man raised on a Nebraska farm. The story takes him through his college years, through some years back on the farm during which he marries, and then through his service in the First World War. Cather does a beautiful job of conveying what life was like. It's interesting to me, because at the time she was writing, it must have been incredibly dull and mundane to note things like the hassles of "scalding the separator" (i.e. cleaning and sterilizing a contraption for separating fat from milk). But today it's a fascinating detail that brings the time and place alive. (It's also an example Cather uses to suggest that a mechanized world may not be entirely better than a non-mechanized one.) I wonder whether Cather (or any writer describing their present) had an eye on an audience almost a hundred years hence?

Claude was dutiful but discontented with his life in Nebraska. He finds contentment in Europe. He seems to think the difference is with values: Americans are concerned solely with making money and producing things, while Europeans are interested in feelings. I'm not sure that Cather is positing such a thing; I think she gives us plenty of reasons to doubt the reliability of Claude's viewpoint. It struck me that Claude is unfairly comparing the ordinary work-a-day life he experienced at home with the chaotic state of war in the midst of which people place a high value on fundamental things (e.g. having food and being near their loved ones).

The story touches on tensions between new German immigrants and their neighbors during the war years. I guess the fight against an us-versus-them mentality is perennial, as is the tension between freedom of speech and patriotism/treason.

The story is beautifully told. Here's a lovely exemplary sentence:
The sun was like a great visiting presence that stimulated and took its due from all animal energy. When it flung wide its cloak and stepped down over the edge of the fields at evening, it left behind it a spent and exhausted world.
The graphic I used is for a volume from the Library of America series. The black cover is probably familiar to all. Very pleasant to read from a book that has a stitched binding and opens flat.

Update: This was a book club pick.

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