Willa Cather can make you believe that Nebraska is a little more idyllic than your particular piece of America. Prairie flowers bloom near fields of waving wheat. Sturdy immigrant farmers build sturdy farmhouses and some residents install hammocks on the upper porch to sleep out under the stars on summer evenings. Even the fierce winter snows are occasions to pull out the sleigh and take a ride through the small town.
That’s where One of Us begins, Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that appeared in 1922. Her working title for the project was Claude, a fictionalized account of the experiences of her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in combat on the Western front during World War I. Claude Wheeler is the son of a prominent farmer who, despite living on Lovely Creek, is emerging from adolescence with a young man’s discontent. He talks politics and life with his best friend, Ernest, over lunch on the river bank. He emerges from lectures at the university “with the feeling that the world was full of stimulating things, and that one was fortunate to be alive and to be able to find out about them.” At school, he is taken in by a lively family, and particularly by the family’s widowed matriarch, Mrs. Erlich, who takes a special interest in his acculturation to the wider world.
It’s a little too perfect, this prairie paradise. Cather bathes this Nebraska, which was her childhood home, in the golden light of a hundred sunsets. It’s 1914. The place has barely been settled by Easterners and Europeans, but already the expulsion of Native American tribes, the slaughter of the bison, and the travails of the sodbusters are buried beneath the growing American myth. Things are normal in Nebraska, even if the rest of the world seems to be coming apart at the seams. It’s a place where you can set down roots and grow your own field of dreams.
When his father gets a wild hair to help set his brother up with a new farm in Colorado, Claude leaves school to take over management of the farm. His horizons shrink and his intellectual life is reduced to reading passages of books out loud with his mother at night. He develops a comfortable relationship with the determined Enid Royce and persuades her to marry him, though neither seems over the moon about the prospect. When he asks her father for her hand, Mr. Royce struggles to explain why the marriage may not be the best:
He found himself absolutely unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude. It lay in his chest like a physical misery, and the desire to speak struggled there. But he had no words, no way to make himself understood. He had no argument to present. What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.
It’s a hint that there is something missing in Nebraska—some longing for purpose. The marriage falters. Claude slips into a funk. Then the war comes and his world changes. He leaves home and becomes an officer in the American Expeditionary Forces. And then it’s off to France on a harrowing transport ship plagued by an outbreak of the Spanish flu. Then the war itself, interspersed with encounters that open Claude to the possibility that France might be even more wonderful than the Great Plains.
I went to this book thanks to an Alex Ross article in The New Yorker touting it as a great COVID read, but I found instead the enduring genius of Cather’s Americana. She’s not immune to romanticism, but she knows it must be undermined to offer anything like a realistic portrait of this complicated nation. A young man takes center stage, but all around him are strong and interesting women, who are the agents of his awakening and who survive the follies of war and dreams. There are a lot of unfinished trajectories in this novel, things about which you want to know much more. Mostly what this country’s all about and how to rightly tell its story.