At a vendor fair last Friday, I had the privilege of meeting a woman who served as a nurse for the British in World War II. Needless to say, it was the highlight of the evening. I didn’t get her name, but she is in her 90’s and lost her brother during the war in 1941.Photo copyright Ellen Hrkach
Since it is close to Remembrance Day and Veterans Day, I wanted to post my review again of this remarkable book, since the theme is so closely connected.
During the climax of One of Ours, the extraordinary novel published in 1922 by Willa Cather, as men are dying by the dozens, I couldn’t help but recall the words of the moving WW I poem, “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Dr. John McCrae: “We are the Dead. Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow; loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders Fields.” McCrae, who died not long after he penned those poignant words, wrote the poem after witnessing the death of his friend the day before.
When one reads a novel such as One of Ours, it’s hard not to think of those who have died giving the ultimate sacrifice fighting for freedom. And yet war is such a horrible experience for all those involved, most often the youngest and most vibrant of society. While some are forced to fight, many of these young men (and nowadays young women) are not only willing, they are eager and impatient to get to the front lines.
In One of Ours, Willa Cather tells the story of Claude Wheeler, who is impatient and unenthusiastic about his life on a Nebraska farm. He is especially frustrated when it becomes necessary for him to leave college and return home to run the farm. He has little enthusiasm for farm work, merely tolerates his family and feels a constant sense of agitation. Until, that is, the US enters World War I. All of a sudden, as if it’s a revelation, Claude feels a sense of duty, a sense of belonging, a sense of raison d’etre. The slow moving pace of the early part of the book reflects, I believe, Claude’s attitude with how slow and meaningless his life had been thus far. Cather makes use of this beginning section of the book to expertly develop his character as well as the long list of supporting characters.
In the first part of the book, Cather interjects some beautiful and pleasant imagery. When Claude and his friend visit together during Christmas break from college, “…they scrambled down the bank to admire the red clusters on the woody, smoke-coloured vine, and its pale gold leaves, ready to fall at a touch. The vine and the little tree it honoured, hidden away in the cleft of a ravine, had escaped the stripping winds and the eyes of schoolchildren who sometimes took a short cut home through the pasture. At its roots, the creek trickled thinly along, black between two jagged crusts of melting ice.”
During the latter part of the novel, when Claude experiences war, Cather’s imagery was so real and so emotionally provoking that I had a hard time believing that she had never been to war. As the reader, I felt like I was there in the trenches with Claude or walking alongside him. Towards the climax of the book, when Lt. Claude Wheeler arrives to take over at a trench, the description of what he found was visually and emotionally graphic: “The stench was the worst they had yet encountered, but it was less disgusting than the flies: when they inadvertently touched a dead body, clouds of wet, buzzing flies flew up into their faces, into their eyes and nostrils. Under their feet, the earth worked and moved as if boa constrictors were wriggling down there, soft bodies, lightly covered…”
Words so descriptive that as the reader, I found myself swatting the invisible flies away and covering my nose against the stench.
Along with Claude are a cast of characters who are real, engaging and diverse. His mother, a Protestant Christian, carries a underlying bias against Catholics, but truly loves her sons and her husband in the only way she knows. Claude’s father has little tolerance or acceptance of his son’s frustrations with life. Mahailey, although she works for the family and has been living with them for years, is the comic relief in an otherwise serious book, and more often is another maternal figure for Claude. Claude’s wife (Enid), who, under the guise of a self-deluded belief that she is doing “God’s will,” leaves Claude to serve as a missionary in China.
Claude, who would have considered himself Christian, “wanted little to do with theology or theologians,” and, in many respects, found himself leaning toward liberal ideology. However, in the climax of the book, he surprises himself (and the reader) by beseeching God in the face of tragedy and asking for nothing short of a miracle. In exchange, Claude makes his own promise with God.
Willa Cather was one of those writers who encompassed the entire package: great storytelling, exquisite writing and memorable characters, as well as visually clear and exciting imagery. This is an ideal book to read around Veterans Day in November.
I highly recommend this Pulitzer-prize winning novel to anyone who wishes to read a good story, but also for those who wish to understand that “Real freedom isn’t really free,” and to allow Colonel John McCrae’s words to sink in:
We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved, and were loved…
Copyright 2010 Ellen Gable Hrkach