Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One of Ours

One of Ours, by Willa Cather
$9.95 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0760777683
This is the story of a farm boy from a dreary Nebraska town whose life finds meaning when he joins the army and enters World War I. It earned the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for its author.
Willa Cather was a very interesting person, and is considered one of America's greatest writers. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and other brilliant "Lost Generation" writers, Willa wrote about the last pioneers in a country that was quickly becoming industrialized. Her books are often set in bleak towns, isolated in the vast prairies of Nebraska.
Claude Wheeler, our young hero, is finishing his idyllic childhood in just such a town. He's seventeen, and excessively sensitive at the story's beginning.
His father and all the other men on the farm are grizzled, boisterous, macho men with whom he's somewhat embarassed to be seen. He's frightened to go into saloons (not that I blame him, I'm sure the fights could get pretty nasty).
So he's a little out of place. 
His family is loving and understanding, but a bit overbearing. Being 
oppressively tied down to a dirt farm is starting to look like a nightmare to Claude, and it's a recurring theme throughout the book.
He goes to a nearby religious college, which seems like a waste of time and money. Religious colleges in 1910 Nebraska don't have much to offer in terms of pedigree or future career opportunities.
He makes some close friendships, though, particularly with a young man named Elrich, a genuinely caring person who helps make Claude a bit more worldly. When Elrich leaves, it starts a chain of events which eventually leads Claude to go to war in Europe.
It's interesting how positive Cather's view of war is. There's no shocking bloodshed, in fact the entire war is written with an almost Hardy Boys feel to it. Please understand that it was written by an old lady to be read as a boyhood adventure story. This is not Band of Brothers.
Despite its almost total lack of violence, it's an exciting and enjoyable war story. The protagonist is just as sweet as apple pie, and Cather's setting in the last of the American prairie is heartbreaking and lovely.

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