Willa Cather's Nebraska

Ode to the Great Plains

I have recently begun reading Willa Cather for the first time that I remember. I saw a reference somewhere to O Pioneers, and found it was free on Kindle, and what I found was far more delightful that I expected. Cather has such a renowned reputation in the literary world that I was expecting a “literary” novel. But no. It is a simple novel about the simple people who homesteaded on the great plains of Nebraska

Most of the [houses] were built of the sod itself and were only the ground itself, and were only the unescapable ground in another form. The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human striving.

with marvelous descriptions, in My Antonia, of the grasslands that went on forever and the vast sky overhead.

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running…I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.

On political maps, Nebraska is bright red. It is referred to by those of us who are or have been coasters, east or west, as “flyover country.” It is hardly possible anymore, for anyone even if they happen to drive through it (I-80, I believe), to experience the awe and wonder of the great grasslands as they first appeared to our European ancestors and realize the back-breaking work that went into making wheatfields out of them.

But reading these early novels of Willa Cather will take you there and introduce you to our ancestors, asking us to forgive them for their shortsightedness, to understand them in their stubbornness and willful ways, and find the remnants of the red grass prairies that was all the beauty most of them could ever know.