Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.
In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a yound Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.
My first introduction to Willa Cather was reading The Professor’s House in college, and the middle act of the book, set in the American southwest in a place evocative of Mesa Verde, entranced me, because she was writing a landscape I had grown up in and around, and so deftly it felt like I was back there. I immediately picked up Death Comes for the Archbishop, and sometime after read her prairie trilogy, but never made it around to One of Ours until I began this project.
The first half of the novel is much akin to many of her prairie novels: it follows the protagonist, Claude Wheeler, as he struggles against a sort of oppression from his father and brothers, and later, his wife. Interested in his studies and the friends that he is making at college, that joyous time of his life is cut short when his father purchases land in Colorado and places Claude in charge of the Nebraska farm, forcing him out of college and away from his new friends. Trying to make the best of it, and falling in love, Claude finds himself married to a woman he soon realizes is cold and emotionless to him, more interested in expending her passions in the work of prohibition and Christian missions.
While World War One runs through the first half of the book as an undercurrent, it is still a distant and mostly speculative thing for the characters. Until America joins the war, and Claude joins the army, and World War One hits the second half of the book like a jolt. While the first two halves of the novel at first seemed disparate when I was reading, I get the idea that Willa Cather intended it to be that way. There should be something foreign and uncomfortable, and at times disheartening about the war, something that is unfamiliar and unknowable to the Midwestern American towns. There should not be any sort of smooth transition from farming to war.
It is during the second half of the book that it becomes most interesting. Besides Claude finding his place in the world, and finally feeling comfortable and accomplished in something he’s doing, the other minor characters stand out. There are a number of German settlers in Claude’s regiment, whose families moved to the American Midwest a generation or two before, and who set off to fight against their ancestral homelands, who try to prove their families’ American patriotism. There is also a character who Claude thinks is British for a while, because of his accent and habits, but finds out that he is actually from a small town in America, much like his, but who cuts ties so completely with his past, after signing up with the RAF before America joined the war, that he tells Claude that he has no intention of ever going back to America.
Claude falls somewhere in between the fervent American patriotism and the pilot pretending to be British. While he does not think of his wife when he thinks of home, he has his mother and the family housekeeper, who used to wait every night for the evening paper so they could read the news from the warfront. He finds that, as he goes through France, it is the trees and plants that are familiar from back home that are the most fascinating to him, changing the way he though about the same plants back home through the new context in France.
He’s also faced with the new context of war, the reality that wasn’t in the papers. It begins on the boat ride over, when a flu epidemic sweeps through the ship, killing many of the men in his regiment. In France, he meets British soldiers who lost their entire regiment, all of them school friends who had left for war together and been thrown into the trenches at the fronts. He’s faced with rodents and mud and the reality of dead bodies piling up in the trenches. He meets broken and wounded men. But he also meets French townspeople who give him and his men hospitality, who struggle to survive and rebuild in cities and towns still threatened by war. It’s in this new environment that Claude is finally able to define and recognize his true self apart from his family.
One of Ours is an interesting look at the clash between the American farming Midwest, and the First World War. It’s not the best Willa Cather book I’ve read (that honor goes to Death Comes for the Archbishop), but it is a solid novel in line with her style that does not disappoint fans of her work, and could be a good introduction for those who have never read her. Her portrayals of the land, the scenery, the plants, and the people are true to form–wonderfully lively, and altogether engrossing. Though the novel jury thought it was imperfect in many ways, I must say I have to disagree with them. Although I also admit having a bias toward Willa Cather, so I may be blind to some of those faults as a result.
Claude knew nothing of ships or shipbuilding, but these craft did not seem to be nailed together,–they seemed all of a piece, like sculpture. They reminded him of the houses not made with hands; they were like simple and great thoughts, like purposes forming slowly here in the silence beside an unruffled arm of the Atlantic. He knew nothing about ships, but he didn’t have to; the shape of these hulls–their strong, inevitable lines–told their story, was their story; told the whole adventure of man with the sea.
Why you should read it:
Willa Cather writes two things very well: characters and environment (the landscape often becomes a sort of character in her work), and both are on display in full force here. The characters are realistic and intriguing, and Cather writes the Nebraskan plains just as well as the French countryside, bringing them both to life.
Currently reading: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson