One of Ours, by Willa Cather
Review by Mark Munger
(New York: Alfred Knopf, 1922)
Most of us at one point or another in our reading careers have read Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers!, and My Antonia by acclaimed American Plains and Western novelist, Willa Cather. But few of us, I am fairly certain, outside of serious students of Cather’s work, have heard of, much less read, One of Ours, a tale that straddles two genres, that of Plains hardscrabble fiction and war novel. At first, attempting to meld those two distinct brands of invented lives might seem a bit awkward, forced, or even foolhardy. But in the end, in the hands of a master storyteller like Willa Cather, One of Ours satisfies both as to craft and plot.
Set in pre-Great War Nebraska on the Wheeler place, a farm owned by Nat and Evangeline Wheeler, a large spread where the parents have raised their three boys: Bayliss, Claude, and Ralph, One of Ours isn’t the stereotypical novel of hard luck and tragedy that we’ve come to expect from farm stories of its time. Though Nat Wheeler is a big, powerful man who owns much property, he is content to allow others to work his land, renting pasture and cropland to local farmers who are down on their luck. Cather’s construction of the fictional patriarch of the Wheeler clan is nuanced. One expects, at every turn of a phrase, to find some evil lurking in Nat, a man who is far more wealthy and prosperous than his favored mode of transportation, a rickety old horse drawn cart, lets on. But such revelations never occur. In addition, it’s not that the Wheeler patriarch spurns technology: he owns motor cars and uses the services of mechanized harvesters and, in one brief reference, even flies between Nebraska and Colorado to visit his youngest son Ralph, who has been installed as the head of the Wheeler ranching operations in the foothills of the Rockies. But despite his reluctant embrace of technology, in many ways Nat Wheeler is a throw back to another age, another time, when immigrant men busted sod, lived in earthen dugouts, fought nature, and tried to make a living on 160 acres of homestead land.
Evangeline, the matriarch of the clan, comes off as loving, if a bit stereotypical. She is the devoted mother, the glue that keeps the family unit humming despite Nat’s sometimes indifferent and distant approach to child rearing. Mahailey, the Wheeler housekeeper, a Southern refugee from the Civil War living in the Wheeler home, is the tale’s comic relief. By dialect and attribute, she reminds me of Prissy, the servant in Gone with the Wind even though, somewhere in the text, we finally come to learn that Mahailey isn’t black but a poor white woman.
But by far the most interesting female character in the book is the asexual Enid, the woman that Claude ends up “settling” for when the true love of his life, Gladys, the local school marm, appears destined to marry Bayliss Wheeler, the frugal, passionless eldest Wheeler boy. Whereas conventional storytelling might turn Enid’s coyness and reluctance towards physicality into eventual fondness and love for Claude, Cather avoids such scripted prose. Cather’s Enid stays true to her nature, which in large part, is driven by religious faith. Over time, Enid’s recalcitrance towards intimacy bedevils Claude to the point where he is on the cusp of enlisting in the Army to fight in the Great War. But before Claude can make such a bold and clear statement against his wife, Enid abandons the marriage to undertake a missionary journey.
Cather then weaves, upon the twin departures of her main protagonists in the prairie tale—Claude to France and Enid to China—a fine depiction of trench warfare. The author’s descriptive powers capture the brutality, filth, danger, and respite of the latter months of the Great War, a conflict that introduced the world to poison gas, tanks, dogfights, submarines, and a host of other dastardly inventions bent on the destruction of fighting men. In many ways, the storytelling in the last third of the book, the portion devoted to Claude’s experiences in France, is reminiscent of Hemingway’s best: terse, manly, bold, and descriptive in a minimalist way. There are no excess adjectives or adverbs lurking in Cather’s prose, no embellishments or flourishes to wow the critics: Just plain, simple god-awfully good writing.
This is a strong willed, well-told tale that melds the two genres of its theme into a cohesive story of family, love, angst, honor, and duty. My only critique of the book is that a story of this standing and caliber deserves far better formatting and editing than is provided in the current edition from Forgotten Books. The edition is replete with typos and errors in typesetting that diminish one’s ability to enjoy one of Cather’s least known, and best-written novels. Btu that having been said, it is a true joy as a writer and a reader, to explore, even in its diminished form, writing that delivers art and wonder in equal measure:
Claude lay still, his arms under his head, looking up at the hard, polished blue sky, watching the flocks of crows go over from fields where theyfed on shattered grain, to their nests in the trees along Lovely Creek. He was thinking about what Dan had said while they were hitching up. There was a great deal of truth in it, certainly. Yet, as for him, he often felt that he would rather go out into the world and earn his bread among strangers than sweat under this half-responsibility for acres and crops that were not his own. He knew that his father was sometimes called a “land-hog” by the country people, and he himself had begun to feel that it as not right they should have so much land—farm, or to rent, or to leave idle as they chose. It was strange that in all the centuries the world had been going, the question of property had not been better adjusted. The people who had it were slaves to it, and the people who didn’t have it were slaves to them.
Though I am not a huge eBook fan, preferring to consider my prose in the old fashioned way, I have read both the Kindle version and the trade paperback version of One of Ours. Given the formatting issues addressed above, I’d recommend the eBook version of the novel as the better choice.
4 and ½ stars out of 5. This book holds up well across time.