Reader recommendation: American author Willa Cather

Reader Jill, from Mt Evelyn, recently recommended American author Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918). Photo: ON FILE

By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun

Reader Jill, from Mt Evelyn, recently recommended American author Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918).

In Jill’s words, these are “excellent, beautifully written and evocative”.

“Although the stories are works of fiction, they bring to life the scenery and society of the American West which has long since disappeared.”

These books are often referred to as Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy”, as they portray life on the Great Plains, the western part of the flatland in North America between the Appalachian Plateau and the Rocky Mountains.

Throughout the 19th century, settlers of mainly European backgrounds migrated to the Great Plains as part of a vast westward expansion.

Born in Virginia in 1873, Cather’s family moved to Nebraska when she was nine years old.

Her time in that frontier state was a formative experience, as the vastness of the prairie and the diverse cultural backgrounds of the local immigrant families left her with a deep impression.

Cather started writing during her university years, but it was only after the Prairie Trilogy became popular that her work was widely recognised. She was praised for having ordinary people as characters and using plainspoken language in her books, as well as “bringing Nebraska to the wider world for the first time”.

Inspired by a poem by Walt Whitman, O Pioneers! tells the story of a farming family of Swedish-American immigrants in Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, The Song of the Lark tells the story of a talented singer from Colorado who finds success in New York City but never forgets her small home town. As Jill explains, this story is regarded as the most autobiographical of Cather’s novels.

But it is My Antonia that truly showcases the American West as one of the novel’s most memorable characters. The book tells the stories of Jim, an orphaned boy from Virginia, and Antonia, the elder daughter in a family of Bohemian immigrants. (As Jill clarifies, “Bohemia” is another name for “Czechoslovakia”, now Czech Republic.)

Both are brought to Nebraska as children and raised as pioneers near the end of the 19th century.

Narrated from Jim’s perspective, My Antonia paints a vivid picture of pioneering life in the American West where farming is an essential part of everyday existence.

The lifelong friendship between Jim and Antonia is shaped with a sense of place – both natural landscapes and domestic spaces, where adventures, families and communities are found.

It is interesting that My Antonia is described as “a departure from the focus on wealthy families in American literature”.

Indeed, it is said that even F. Scott Fitzgerald considered his own The Great Gatsby a failure in comparison to My Antonia.

Cather received the Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 novel One of Ours, which is set during the First World War.

However, it is the Prairie Trilogy that defines her as a novelist of the frontier and pioneer experience.

Thanks again to Jill for recommending this extraordinary author.

Note: “Reader Recommendation” is a new series of articles featuring outstanding authors and books recommended by our readers.

Its origin can be traced back to June 2022, when reader Elizabeth from Clematis recommended English author Richmal Crompton’s Just William (1922).

If you, too, like to recommend a favourite author or book – either Australian or international – please drop a note to Christine Sun via