During the middle to late 1800’s, thousands upon thousands of Americans, as well as foreigners, flocked to the mid-western part of the United States. They flocked to this area hoping to gain free or cheap land promised to them by the United States Government. Most of the “pioneers” left cities and factory jobs to venture out into the American prairies and become farmers. They left their homes, not only because the land was either free or cheap, but also because they wanted to leave the hardships of city life.
However, as most would find out, prairie life had its’ share of hardships, that far out-reached the hardships of city life. Among these hardships were the death of siblings and friends due to starvation and hard work. Pioneers also had to face the stresses and burdens of trying to make a living off of the land. Along with these stress’s, they had to worry about how to make money off of the land. All of these hardships, as well as others, were portrayed in Willa Cather’s “Pioneers”. In the beginning of the novel, we meet the Bergson family. As one reads the beginning chapters of the novel, one learns that the Bergson family has dealt with an awful toll on the family. They lost two children in between the births of Lou and Oscar.
Not only did they lose two children, who they surely loved dearly, they lost a herd of cattle to a blizzard. They lost a very important plowing horse to a broken leg. They lost their hogs due to cholera. They also lost an important breeding stallion. All of these hardships occurred within a relatively short time of eleven years. Then at the end of chapter two, the Bergson’s lost the head of their family in John. With the loss of the father, the family had to undertake the stresses and burdens of supporting themselves. As one reads the remainder of the novel, one learns that the Bergson’s lost their friends in Marie, their own family member in Emil, and another friend in Amedee. After John died, the family divided the land into three parts. These three parts went to Alexandra, Lou, and Oscar. All three had difficulties within the first couple of years. It even got to the point to where they were discussing the idea of leaving and going back home.
They discussed this idea because the land they were living on was not producing much for them and money was very hard to earn. Cather stated in Chapter two that John Bergson “spent his first five years on the Divide getting into debt, and the last six getting out.” After John died, the rest of the family took on the responsibility of repaying this debt. However, by the end of the novel, the land had become very fertile and hearty and they were able to make a living off of it. But most pioneers during this time were not so lucky. Some died of starvation. Some returned to the cities in which they came from.
Carl Linstrums family, in this story, had such bad luck with the land; they were forced to return to the city. Violence and crime was also a problem for prairie dwellers. Most people in this area lived in seclusion, miles from the nearest town. Therefore there was no jurisdiction in these outer one or two home communities. Because there was no jurisdiction, it was increasingly easier for people to commit crimes and get away with it. And most times this happened but people did get caught. This was the case for Frank in the novel. He committed a crime and turned himself in. But if Frank and Marie were living in town, under the protection of jurisdiction, it could have been quite possible that Frank would not have committed his crime due to the fear of being caught and persecuted (even though he turned himself in). Pioneers during this time also had to deal with not having much of a personal life. Most pioneers were so caught up and so busy in tending their land, that they really had no time for themselves.
Alexandra is a very good example of this. She spent so much of her time worrying about the land and her family, that she had no time in perusing her wishes of falling in love and marrying Carl. Throughout the novel, she had a recurring dream that a big and strong man picked up all of her burdens. Family lives were also affected by the stresses and burdens of tending the land. Family ties became strained or not evident because all of the time and energy had to be devoted to the land. Sons did not have healthy relationships with their working fathers. Daughters and mothers suffered the same fate as fathers and sons. However, some pioneers were able to sustain a healthy family atmosphere as proven by Amedee and his wife and son. Husbands and wives divorced because their love for each other became strained due to the time spent working the land. They had no time for each other. Frank and Marie’s situation is a prime example of this problem (even though her flirtasous spirit was not much help).
Willa Cather did a very good job by portraying the real life situations that American pioneers had to face. This novel opened the eyes of the American public to the courage these pioneers must have had to venture out on to wild and un-charted land. It also opened the heart, of the American public, to these pioneers because of the hardships and burdens these pioneers had to face. As one reads this novel, it is very easy to feel nothing but the utmost respect for these pioneers because they underwent so much turmoil, that very few others during this time, went through. These pioneers were family oriented and wanted nothing but the best possible for their families. The pioneer men back during this time were real men and the pioneer women during this time were real women.