Wednesday, March 31, 2004

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! (1913) tells the story of the Bergson family in Nebraska. The novel mainly focuses on Alexandra, the eldest child, and Emil, the youngest sibling. At the beginning of the story, Alexandra's father John Bergson is dying. John leaves his land in Alexandra's capable hands, and he wants his family to preserve what he worked for since leaving Sweden to immigrate to America. John considers his eldest sons, Oscar and Lou, to be less capable of managing the property than Alexandra. John has foresight. Over the course of the story, Alexandra repeatedly makes decisions that go against the norm that allow her family's farmland to prosper.

Alexandra has one friend who understands her named Carl Linstrum. When Carl’s family decides to leave Hanover after years of crop failures, Alexandra feels isolated. Later, Alexandra and her brothers divide the land evenly when her brothers marry. She continues to manage her own farm, which becomes the most prosperous on the Divide.

The narrative then skips ahead to sixteen years after Alexandra's father's death. Alexandra has the money to send Emil to college and she raised her younger brother without him ever having to toil on the land. Out of friendship, Alexandra has taken in Ivar, a Russian man that many consider crazy. Since the early days, Ivar advised Alexandra and helped her with the animals. Because of Ivar’s strong love of nature and life, he isolates himself from others and wishes to cause the least damage to the land. Ivar is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Both he and Alexandra still recall the harsh realities of the land when they first arrived, while other characters seem ashamed of the memory and want to appear "civilized." Alexandra’s meddling brothers want her to send Ivar to an asylum, but she adamantly refuses.

Alexandra's neighbor is a pretty, Bohemian girl named Marie Shabata. Marie was introduced in the first chapter as a child who is Emil's age. She marries Frank, a difficult and brooding man, who is filled with jealousy. They live at the old Linstrum place. Marie tries to find brightness and happiness in what she sees, and Alexandra enjoys her company.

Carl Linstrum returns for a visit after many years away. Carl is mesmerized with Alexandra and is dissatisfied with his own life. As Carl and Alexandra grow closer, Oscar and Lou grow angry. They think that Carl wants Alexandra's land—land that they wrongfully consider theirs. Oscar and Lou believe that Alexandra should not marry at forty, and that she is a fool to let Carl hang around. Sadly, although Alexandra wants Carl to stay, he leaves for Alaska to win success there, and Alexandra is more alone than ever.

Still, Alexandra is more attached to the land than she is to any living person. She embodies the spirit of the pioneer and the land itself. These characteristics leave her ignorant to the emotions of those around her. She fails to see that Emil is deeply attracted to Marie and that Marie wants to reciprocate Emil’s feelings. Emil decides to leave for Mexico, in an attempt to escape his feelings, but while he is there, he writes letters to both Alexandra and Marie. Marie is struggling to hide herself from Emil's love for her. When Emil returns to Hanover a year later, he kisses Marie in the middle of a church crowd while everyone is in the dark. In stunning simplicity, no one notices anything has happened, though Marie and Emil’s worlds have shifted. Marie pleas with Emil to leave because she cannot live with him nearby. When Emil comes to say goodbye, he sees Marie under a white mulberry tree. Her husband Frank sees them together, and he shoots and kills them both in a terrifying and bloody scene.

Alexandra is shocked and lost. She dreams more often of a man of enormous strength who can pick her up and carry her over her fields. She resolves to try to help Frank who is now in prison, and surprisingly places more blame for the murder on her brother and Marie. She learns that Carl has returned upon hearing the news. At last, Carl and Alexandra decide to marry.

The novel entwines two stories into one. The underlying story is about Alexandra and the land and her determination. The second story is about Emil and Marie’s love for one another and its consequences. Cather has an understanding of how decisions have consequences. What is known and hidden in character’s hearts shines through in her portrayals. The story is harsh, true, and believable, and amid the land's richness, this book is a gem.

Favorite Quotes:

"It's by understanding me, and the boys, and mother, that you've helped me. I expect that is the only way one person ever really can help another."

"Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman."

"The grain is so heavy that it bends toward the blade and cuts like velvet."

" Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

"The veil that had hung uncertainly between them for so long was dissolved. Before she knew what she was doing, she had committed herself to that kiss that was at once a boy's and a man's, as timid as it was tender; so like Emil and so unlike any one else in the world. Not until it was over did she realize what it meant. And Emil, who had so often imagined the shock of this first kiss, was surprised at its gentleness and naturalness. It was like a sigh which they had breathed together; almost sorrowful, as if each were afraid of wakening something in the other."

"How terrible it was to love people when you could not really share their lives!"

Related Reviews:
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Purchase and read books by Willa Cather:

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather A Lost Lady by Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Freckles (1904) by Gene Stratton-Porter is a moral tale combined with adventure and romance. Freckles is an orphan with only one hand. He arrives at the Limberlost swamp in Indiana to search for a job after leaving the Home, an orphanage in Chicago. His honesty and positive attitude earn him a job as the Limberlost guard for the lumber company. There, Freckles proves himself to be intelligent, strong, and diligent.

As Freckles guards the trees, he learns about the plants growing in the Limberlost and he befriends the animals living there. Freckles makes a “room” in the swamp, a closed garden where he spends time and stores his specimen case containing his treasures. One day, a beautiful girl peeks into his “room,” and Freckles falls in love with her. He calls her his “Swamp Angel.” He befriends the Bird Woman, the Angel’s friend, who takes photos of Freckles’s birds, which he calls “chickens.”

Freckles impresses those around him with his work ethic and good nature. His boss, McLean, treats Freckles as if he were his own son. He prepares to send Freckles to school after the timber gang arrives and Freckles’s guard duty ends. Mr. Duncan, who works for the lumber company, and his wife both love the affectionate boy. The Swamp Angel inspires Freckles in new ways, and we learn that he aspires to sing. He has a stunning voice.

Meanwhile, trouble brews for Freckles as a thief named Black Jack plans to steal trees. The pair fight with one another, and Freckles wins twice, but eventually Freckles is overpowered. The Angel saves Freckles as the thieves attempt to steal a valuable tree. Then later, a tree nearly falls on the Angel, and Freckles saves her, but he is severely hurt and hospitalized.

In the hospital, Freckles is dejected, feeling he will never be able to have the thing he truly wants–the Angel. She is of a higher class, and Freckles believes she deserves a better husband, one who is not nameless and missing a hand. Though the Angel tries to convince him that she loves him, Freckles refuses to believe that they can be together. He thinks of how he arrived at the Home, beaten and bloody, with his arm cut off. He wonders what parents could do that to their own son.

The Angel disagrees, telling him that his parents could never have done such things when Freckles has such a good heart. She aims to prove that he was loved and learns that he was the son of a Lord. Freckles’s parents died in a fire trying to save him, and he has a huge inheritance.

The story ends happily with this contrivance of the plot; however, I would have enjoyed it more had Freckles understood his self-worth was determined by himself, not by the discovery of his parents and high-class name.

Related Reviews:
A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

Purchase and read books by Gene Stratton-Porter:

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

Friday, March 12, 2004

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) is a lovely tale of a girl named Elnora Comstock. Elnora is a headstrong, intelligent nature-lover. She is 16 years old at the beginning of the story and ages to around 23 by the end. The reader sympathizes for her in her early struggles to pay for school and to forgive her mother as well as in her later struggles in romance.

Elnora lives with her mother Katharine by the Limberlost swamp in Indiana. Her father drowned in the swamp before Elnora was born, and her mother shows her no affection. Katharine Comstock is an outstanding example of selfishness. She has a wicked, acidic tongue and sense of humor. Katharine idolizes her dead husband and blames Elnora for his death. Elnora reminds her mother of her father at times, making Katharine even more aloof from her child. At the same time, Katharine does not want anyone else to love Elnora either, so she jealously guards Elnora from her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Wesley. Maggie and Wesley give Elnora love and treat her with kindness.

Elnora must pay for her schooling, and she succeeds through her sheer determination in the face of adverse circumstances. She learns everything about the Limberlost. Elnora collects moths, butterflies, and Indian relics, and she studies the rare plants that grow there. She excels at playing the violin, like her father. Elnora pays her way through school by selling collections of moths to the Bird Lady. She ends up graduating first in her class.

One climax in the book occurs when Katharine finally realizes that her memory of her husband is false and that she has been needlessly punishing her daughter. Following this realization, Katharine’s transformation is remarkable. She changes from being an evil and misunderstood villainess to become the mother Elnora always dreamed of having. Understanding Katharine’s motivations is one of the highlights of the novel.

The latter part of the story involves Elnora’s attraction to Philip Ammon. Philip shares Elnora's love of nature, but he is engaged to another woman. Elnora is attracted to him, not in a romantic sense at first, but as a kindred friend who understands and shares her love for the environment. When Philip’s fiancĂ©e Edith Carr humiliates him at a ball, he thinks of Elnora in a new light, and he returns to the Limberlost to win her heart. Elnora is cautious because she doesn't know Edith’s side of the story. Through many twists and turns, Elnora and Philip end up together.

My favorite aspect of A Girl of the Limberlost is Porter’s keen understanding of nature. She portrays settings in a way that engrossed me as a reader. In reading this story, I was left with a vivid picture of the Limberlost.

Related Reviews:
Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

Purchase and read books by Gene Stratton-Porter:

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Armadale (1864–1866) by Wilkie Collins is a Victorian mystery and suspenseful thriller. Armadale is the name of four different men in this story, who are pairs of fathers and sons. This name is the key to their fortunes and is a cause of shame and secrecy. Each of the four Allan Armadales has his own set of motivations that determine the course of novel’s events.

The drama and sensational aspects of the novel are woven together perfectly and kept me on my toes. From the opening death bed confession to a suicide attempt off a ship to a dream which comes true little by little, I was excited by what came next. At times, I knew what to expect, but not when.

One of the main characters, Ozias Midwinter, often works against what he believes to be his fate, but at other times, he is reconciled to what his fate brings him. The young Allan Armadale is a generous and often foolish man who is powerless to persuasion. Along with Ozias, the most compelling character is Lydia Gwilt. Lydia is a heroine and villainess rolled into one. At times I sympathized with her because she is the most intelligent character in the novel, and I wanted to see her succeed. At other times, I hated her, and wanted her to fail. She’s both a criminal and a temptress.

No character in the book is perfect; no one is purely good. Each character’s combination of motivations, secrets, and balance of good and bad is what drives the novel to its final pages. Wilkie Collins was a masterful storyteller, who controlled complicated plots with seeming ease. Armadale is one of his masterpieces. Although, Collins is best known for The Moonstone and The Woman in White, Armadale deserves equal acclaim.

Purchase and read books by Wilkie Collins:

Armadale by Wilkie Collins The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Summer by Edith Wharton

Summer by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton showed such skill in portraying the universal emotions of women. In Summer (1917), the novella counterpart to her winter-themed story Ethan Frome, Wharton tells the story of a young woman named Charity Royall.

Charity came from the mountain. Her birth parents were poor and gave her up for adoption to Mrs. and Mr. Royall, a family in North Dormer, a town in New England. Living with her adoptive parents, Charity is kept in check from her true wants by the confines of her upbringing. She feels trapped in the village and senses she has no prospects. In spite of these constraints, Charity is a thoughtful young woman, with whom readers can identify.

After her adoptive mother dies, Charity is left alone with Mr. Royall. He lusts after Charity and tries entering her bedroom, but she refuses him. Charity gets a job as a librarian to earn a small living of her own. She has little interest in her job, but defends it because it belongs to her.

As the summer goes on, Charity falls for a visitor named Lucius Harney. She holds herself back to prove to herself that she’s not loose and that she is serious unlike other women. Eventually though, she gives in, and she and Lucius secretly meet and have sex. She is thrilled with passion for her new lover. Charity believes Lucius is truly devoted to a life with her and doesn’t think he’s just a man fooling around on his vacation. Unfortunately for Charity, Lucius has taken advantage of her, and he leaves Charity after promising to come back for her. Charity learns he’s engaged to another woman in town, and her happiness recedes with the summer.

Alone and now pregnant, Charity is left with the choice of whether she should have an abortion. She is unsure what she should do with her life. Charity returns to her birthplace in the mountains and sees her birth mother on her deathbed. She realizes that the mountain she looked to as her escape is not a place she wants to remain. Seeing no alternative, Charity agrees to marry Mr. Royall. Although Charity can’t achieve her dreams of a love-filled romance and marriage, she manages to escape life as an impoverished, single mother or having to turn to prostitution.

Charity can’t cling to her dreams. As the seasons change, and summer ebbs away, she has to move on and seek what she can from life. The story is simple, and its themes are still relevant today, a century later. It is understandable why Wharton ranked Summer as one of her favorites among her novels.

Portrait of Edith Wharton, 1905

Edited portrait of Edith Wharton, The World's Work, 1905. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Related Reviews:
The Reef by Edith Wharton
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

Purchase and read books by Edith Wharton:

Summer by Edith Wharton Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller (1879) is a short novel about a young American woman traveling in Europe. Daisy is enjoying her new experiences as she travels, and her priorities are her own pleasure and amusement. Unlike those around her, Daisy tells the truth rather than calculating to move up the social ladder.

Frederick Winterbourne meets Daisy in Vevey, Switzerland and is instantly intrigued by her and her fresh nature. He is protective of Daisy and sees that she is breaking unspoken social rules. Frederick thinks that Daisy blunders innocently and without awareness, and it never occurs to him that she is deliberately being rebellious in refusing to conform to the norms of society.

Winterbourne pursues Daisy, but when his aunt refuses to meet her, Daisy realizes that his family does not consider her to be a social equal. Before Winterbourne leaves Vevey for Geneva, he agrees to meet Daisy in Rome later that year.

When he arrives in Rome, Daisy is being gossiped about by those who think she is being too familiar with Italian men. In particular, Daisy is involved with a man named Giovanelli, and she refuses to tell Winterbourne if she is engaged to him or not. Daisy is gradually excluded by other Americans because of her behavior. One night, Winterbourne sees Daisy with Giovanelli at the Colosseum, and he is angry with Giovanelli for taking her there because of the risk of catching Roman fever.

Sadly, soon after, Daisy contracts Roman fever and dies. After her death, Winterbourne belatedly receives a letter from Daisy. In her letter, she explains that she was never engaged and that she remembered their time together in Geneva fondly.

Henry James wrote this novella in third person, leaving the reader without a complete understanding of Daisy. The reader’s view of Daisy is mainly filtered through Winterbourne’s perspective. Is Daisy ignorantly blundering, or is she purposefully striving for freedom?

In spite of seeming to understand Daisy’s letter and her need for respect, Winterbourne returns to his old ways at the story’s end. He is apparently unaffected by Daisy’s presence in his life. Meanwhile, the reader is left wondering whether Winterbourne understood Daisy at all.

Related Review:
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Purchase and read books by Henry James:

Daisy Miller by Henry James The Turn of the Screw by Henry James The Golden Bowl by Henry James The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James