Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"One of Ours" by Willa Cather

It's about time I got around to picking up this book, though I do have some excuses regarding my resistance. First, it's about war, and you know how I feel about war books. (And if you don't, you should. I don't like them.) Second, Hud read it before me and told me it was reeeeaaallllly slow. More specifically, he described the book as such--and, by the way, his description ends with a fairly big spoiler, so squint your eyes really hard while you're reading this: "He's farming, he's farming, he's farming, there's a war, he dies." (Don't be mad. I was actually really glad I knew this ahead of time. I would not have been prepared enough otherwise). Third, the cover of my copy isn't as nice as the one pictured here. I might have picked it up sooner if I'd liked the cover better, because I will judge a book by its cover no matter how adamantly you tell me I shouldn't.

On the bright side, I had three reasons that prodded me to finally pick up the book. First, it was the Pulitzer prize-winning novel in 1923, so somebody must have liked it at some point, unless that was just a really bad year for literature. Second, it was on my TBR list, and the only way to get a book off the list is to read it. Third, I used a paperbackswap credit to get this copy. You don't want to waste those. They're like gold.

I brought this book with me on our road trip last month and I still didn't manage to read it. But finally this week I decided: It's Time. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn't find the novel slow to start at all. Of course I suppose this shouldn't have been unexpected, considering how my tastes in reading differ from Hud's. He'll read the heck out of books about mech warriors or zombies, if that tells you anything.

This is the story of Claude Wheeler, a young Nebraska farm boy whose entire life is a disappointment (to himself, if not to anyone else). He is unfulfilled by every aspect of his existence, and his only passion is for the road not taken. This is not as annoying as it might sound. Claude isn't the sort of person who pessimistically disparages every possible situation; rather, he has been fettered by responsibilities that keep him from the life he was meant to lead--until America joins the Great War. Claude signs up at his first opportunity, and even through the horrors of war he finds meaning and purpose that he could never grasp in the wheat fields back home.

Not only did I find Hud was wrong about the novel's pace, but Cather's writing really shines, and certain parts are stuck in my mind. I was taken with the romantic description of the ocean as Claude travels the Atlantic in those halcyon days before true hardship strikes: " . . . the yellow sky came down evenly, like a gold curtain, on the still sea that seemed to have solidified into a slab of dark blue stone,--not a twinkle on its immobile surface. Across its dusky smoothness were two long smears of pale green, like a robin's egg." Then, again, after the troops are decimated by an influenza epidemic before they reach France, the ocean has changed: "The sun poured over them like flame, without any comfort in it. The strong, curling, foam-crested waves threw off the light like millions of mirrors, and their color was almost more than the eye could bear. The water seemed denser than before, like heavy melted glass, and the foam on the edges of each blue ridge looked sharp as crystals. If a man should fall into them, he would be cut to pieces."

Another poignant portion I feel I will long remember is when Claude comes across a grave marked Soldat Inconnu. His following thoughts are telling: "Most of the boys who fell in this war were unknown, even to themselves. They were too young. They died and took their secret with them,--what they were and what they might have been." Of course, that very same idea applies to anyone who dies before they've really had a chance to live, but in times of war that tragedy is heartbreakingly frequent.

This was my first Willa Cather book, though even before I picked this one up I fully intended to read My Antonia at some point. Now that I know how well-written and un-boring One of Ours is (and I'm talking about a war novel here!), I'm all the more interested in reading her other works.


Hannah Stoneham said...

Well, I'm pleased to read that you liked after all!

Allie said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this. My first experience with Cather was not so great (My Antonia in high school), but I recently read O Pioneers and absolutely loved it! I will have to add this to my list!

Buffalo Savage said...

Since I read "One of Ours," I've read "The Great Influenza" by John Barry. He points out that it started in 1918 in Kansas, on over-crowded military bases; it spread because of wide troop deployments and it tended to kill the strongest and most robust members of society - like soldiers and young health care providers. Cather was one of the very few writers to give a literary nod to a plague that killed at least 50 million people world-wide and has been strangely forgotten.

Ordinary Reader said...

So glad that you liked it. I just discovered Willa Cather this year when I read My Antonia. I loved it, and like you, am very impressed with her writing. Can't wait to read her other books now.

Kathy said...

@Hannah--me too! It's always nice when a book exceeds expectations.

@Allie--do you think you would like My Antonia if you read it now? (you know, without having to uncover all of the symbolism and crap)

@Buffalo Savage--you may remember this from the book, but I thought it was interesting that a footnote pointed out that "the actual outbreak of influenza on transports carrying US troops is here anticipated by several months." I appreciated the qualification that Cather didn't adhere precisely to historical fact.

@Ordinary Reader--which others of Cather's do you think you might try?

Kathy said...

P.S.: As cold and heartless as I am, I cried at the end of this book. Only 6 tears, though. (I counted.)

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Kathy-- I'm laughing about the six tears-- my fellow cold heartless reader. ;o)

I've never read any Cather books-- no particular reason-- her books have just never come into my orbit. This review makes me want to give her a try.

You know I am not much of a review reader but yours are always conversational and interesting-- yes, I know I've said that before but it really makes them stand out compared to other reviewers who follow strict formats and rating systems--- not that there is anything wrong with that (seinfeld)--- but I do prefer your style.

About the Spanish Flu pandemic-- my grandmother was orphaned in that pandemic so I've always been interested in learning more about it. I always found it odd and a bit disturbing that it has been 'strangely forgotten' like Buffalo Savage said-- Wonder why and good on Cather for including it in her book.

Allie said...

You know, I think I might. My tastes have definitely changed and matured. I guess I'll see once I pick it up. I mean, it HAS to be better the second time, right?

Vintage Reading said...

Oh I enjoyed your review. I'm a huge Cather fan but I've not read One of Ours - probably for the same reason as you - another war book. I do want to gradually work my way through all of Cather's novels so I'll look out for this.