02 September 2013

Book Review: Willa Cather's One of Ours

One of OursOne of Ours by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love-love-love Willa Cather's work. She's one of my favorite authors. Why doesn't she get the respect she deserves?

I think it boils down to the era in which she wrote. The inter-war renaissance of letters that found Ernest Hemingway at his peak, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner and eventually John Steinbeck (a regionalist whose works compare well to Cather's). Think of it this way. Do you remember the third-best hitter on the 1927 Yankees after Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig? Would you believe Bob Meusel hit .337 with 105 RBI? That's where Cather stands among the American writers of her day--and in my book, that's pretty darn good.

In One Of Ours Cather focuses on the story of Claude Wheeler a farm boy who is trapped between two worlds: he's smart enough to go to a Christian college--and excel at a public university, too, much to his father's chagrin--but he's tied to the land, and he returns to farm his property when his brother, Ralph, gets a farm out in Colorado.

Claude is passionate enough to attract a girl-next-door type named Enid, but again, he's trapped between two worlds, able to provide amply for Enid, but unable to receive passion in return (which she saves for her religious activities, ultimately ditching him for the chance to be a missionary in China).

The war arrives, then, to solve an existential crisis of Claude's. This is where Cather moves from My Antonia territory into topical stuff: America's reasons to join the war.

Europeans who read One of Ours will find its treatment of World War I vastly inferior to the rich literature that Europeans produced--and continue to write--around the conflict. But OOO is one of the few American novels that described the war from our perspective (again, it suffers against the competition of Hemingway's superior A Farewell to Arms).

But Cather brings out a central truth of the American Expeditionary Force that I haven't found in another American source on the war. Claude isn't fighting for empire, and his soldiers joke about the silly slogan, "making the world safe for democracy." Americans like Claude fight for existential reasons:
"But as for me, I never knew there was anything worth living for till this war came on. Before that, the world seemed like a business proposition" [Claude says]
"You'll admit it's a costly way of providing adventure for the young," said David drily.

Americans fought for personal reasons, not political ones. That's the way we waged the bloody wars of the 20th Century, and it's why our culture found something to glorify in every battle, unlike the Europeans who had fought and died on the very same ground in France, Indochina and the Middle East.

The war passes almost as a series of R&R visits to households in France. The battles are short and graphic. The final two chapters are well researched and vividly rendered, but they can't get away from the shallow self-indulgence that was Claude's war...and in relation, was America's as well.

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