The opening line of One of Ours, a novel by Willa Cather, and the recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, introduces us at once to the book’s central character, Claude. There’s something refreshing about the shift in scenery and focus in this book. Cather’s novel is set well out away from the captains of industry and complicated social networks I’ve been moving among for weeks now on this project. Granted, the Wheelers are a wealthy family (by rural Nebraskan standards), but Claude’s still waking up his younger brother Ralph out of excitement that the circus is in town, and Claude will have to drive the wagon and mule team into town that day to sell some rank-smelling horsehide for his father. This isn’t wealth in the way Mrs. Manson Mingott experienced it.
What I’m struck by so far is the inherent decency of the people in this society. They have their flaws and faults, but generally they seem to be honest and straight-forward people with a sense of honor and ethics. Claude, for example, has a bit of a temper and doesn’t get along with his older brother Bayliss, but when a rich friend of Claude’s mentions with pride that he’d struck Bayliss in the face for his rudeness, Claude insists on fighting his friend to defend the family honor. When his friend refuses, Claude asks him to stop the car, because Claude will walk home rather than accept a ride from someone who’s struck his brother. There’s a kind of nobility to Claude: he is a scholar (and befriended a young immigrant who has become his close friend and study partner) as much as any Nebraska farmboy circa 1915 had the opportunity to be a scholar.
I don’t want to dig into the details of the society too much yet, since I can’t tell what matters. Claude’s father has a tendency to hire objectionable (and incompetent) hired hands, most of whom don’t seem to get along with Claude, but this fault is mitigated by the fact that Mr. Wheeler doesn’t need a successful farm to be rich. He acquired so much land long ago, his rents will surely see him through any hard times. Claude has some brief encounters with friends and acquaintances in town when he goes in to see the circus. And there’s a long-standing disagreement over college: Claude feels he ought to go to the state college, but his mother insists on him attending a small religious college, out of her faith in ministers as conduits of truth. I can say this, though: the characters seem real, they seem grounded in their environment, and I feel as though I can understand them and connect with them.
More will follow once more has been read, but the early signs are promising. I hope Willa Cather proves worthier of her reputation than Tarkington did!