O Pioneers

Summary and Analysis of Part I, chapters iv - v

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Summary

After three years of prosperity, the Bergson family faces the second summer of what will be a three-year drought. Some farmers have had to foreclose on their farms and Alexandra knows that Oscar and Lou would rather be in Chicago working at their uncle's bakery than here. One afternoon Alexandra is picking sweet potatoes-the only crop that thrives in the draught-when Carl Linstrum approaches. He tells Alexandra that his family is giving up their farm. Alexandra says that she's not surprised but confesses that she will miss him terribly. He is her only close friend and she says that she'll have to accustom herself to loneliness after he leaves. She also tells him that his departure will discourage her brothers even more.

That night Oscar and Lou return from a trip to town, and when Alexandra tells them that Carl and his family are leaving, they try to convince her to leave as well. They insist that it doesn't make sense to stay when everyone else is leaving. She points out that Charley Fuller, a rich man, is buying up abandoned homesteads as fast as possible, but the boys refuse to listen to her point. Alexandra suggests that they should stick it out for their father's sake. She asks her mother whether it was harder when they first came, and her mother weeps about how difficult everything was and refuses to move again. Feeling this appeal to their mother is unfair, the boys leave the kitchen.

The next morning, a Sunday, instead of offering to take Alexandra and their mother to church, the brothers hide out in the barn. Carl Linstrum arrives and Alexandra sends him to the barn to cheer up her brothers. Though she usually reads on Sundays, today Alexandra just sits and thinks with the Bible in her lap. That night at dinner she agreed to take a trip to the river country with Emil in order to trade their homestead for one there, if the deal seems good. Everyone seems heartened by this idea, though Oscar doesn't think anyone will trade and Emil worries that Alexandra will be fooled into a bad deal. That night Alexandra reads aloud from the "Swiss Family Robinson," and they are a happy family once more.

During the five days Alexandra and Emil spend on the river, they speak to many people, including one young man who is experimenting with clover hay. When they return Alexandra is more determined than ever to stick with their land. She looks over the Divide and a passionate love for this land rises within her.

That evening at a "family council" Alexandra explains her plan to take out a second mortgage on their homestead and buy more prairie land. She tells them that rich men are buying up all the land that they can and that the farms on high land are better than the farms by the river. Oscar and Lou grumble that they don't want to have a mortgage hanging over their heads and Oscar insists they won't be able to work more land. Alexandra explains that they don't need to work it, just to keep it. She explains that they can succeed where others have failed because they are smarter. After the council, Alexandra looks up at the stars and, despite the fears of her brothers, feels her love of the land.

Analysis

This section of the novel continues to detail the qualities essential to the pioneering spirit. It is easy for everyone to prosper when the weather and soil cooperates. Even Lou and Oscar grow optimistic about the future when the crops flourish, buying up more land and planting as much as they can. But during the drought the families show their mettle. Self-sacrifice and perseverance are necessary to survive bad times, and without them there is little hope for future success.

Alexandra holds on because of her instinctual belief in the land and her devotion to the memory of her father, but, more importantly, she also allows her choices to be guided by reason and evidence. She exemplifies flexibility coupled with determination, listening carefully to the opinions of others-even those of her shortsighted brothers. Alexandra recognizes that her brothers' tendency to do what everyone else is doing is entirely natural. And when she goes to the river country, she does not go with any set idea of how things will turn out. She thinks many different outcomes are possible, and she is ready to make a change if she feels it to be justified. In order to judge her decisions, she speaks to as many people as possible, paying special attention to the actions of innovators, such as the rich Charley Fuller and the man experimenting with alfalfa. Thus Alexandra's success follows from her communicative nature. She persuades her brothers by allowing her feelings and ideas to be completely transparent, never forcing them into decisions they dislike or disagree with.

This kind of behavior may seem, to a current reader, to be an idealistic portrayal of the pioneer spirit. Indeed, as a character, Alexandra is an ideal. She stands for reason, clarity, commitment to family, and other model values that her contemporaries felt to be the essence of the pioneering spirit. Whether her depiction of the pioneers is true to the past or too perfect can only be a topic of discussion, never a settled fact. Cather's novel, at the very least, offers much to discuss about the American prairie-and about the romanticization of the American prairie-whether or not pioneers like Alexandra ever existed, or ever could have existed.

If Cather's characters are ideals of sorts, then the land is the crucible in which these ideals find shape. The Divide is far more than the setting of the novel; it molds character and it dictates destiny. The manner and spirit in which characters respond to the land defines them. For instance, after years of pushing and pulling against the land, Lou and Oscar have only grown more at odds with it; the land has brought out their innate conventionality, their willingness to give up. Their mother responds to the land negatively as well, spending all of her energy attempting to impose a different landscape on the small space she inhabits. Alexandra, by contrast, seems at one with the land, loving it and understanding its challenge. Her character takes root in the Divide's difficult soil. At others recognize her special sympathy with the Divide. Carl Linstrum's father, for instance, openly seeks advice from this young woman. Against the land's unforgiving backdrop, ability and character matter more than gender or age.