I’ve just finished the last page of the novel, and I feel I have to catch my breath—I saw the ending coming and it still knocked the wind out of me. Cather is a hard author to categorize, and her style is hard to sum up. The most distinctive thing about her is her plain-spokenness. She does not elaborate ornate phrases or communicate in sly subtleties. She isn’t a blunt force like Hemingway (what I’ve read of him, anyway), but she is much closer to that end of the style spectrum than she is to Wharton and Fitzgerald.
The last section of the novel, which deals with the war, serves as a good example for me of her talents and her weaknesses. It is overflowing with characters, many of whom are detailed only to be largely forgotten. This kind of epic cast can work for some novelists, but Cather is not quite up to the task—I am constantly mixing up the life stories of Victor Morse (the American airman, who leapt from his burning airplane to fall 1,000 feet to his death) and David Gerhardt (the American lieutenant, whose music and French make Claude envy him, and whose death is too poignant for me to describe). I lose track of which French peasant woman is in dialogue with Claude at any given moment. And this disconnection intersects somewhat weakly with Cather’s desire to evoke emotion–despite her unadorned style, she wants me to feel moments intensely, and often I sense that I am reading an emotional conversation or a touching moment, without quite experiencing that emotion or being truly touched.
But on the other hand, her calm voice allows her to descend into horrors that other writers could not handle so skillfully. When a German sniper opens fire on French children, Cather’s steady voice allows me to feel at once the truth of this violence and also how numbing it becomes—a more elaborate writer would be far more likely to over-write such a passage, but Cather generally allows such scenes to speak for themselves. And when Cather’s desire to provoke an emotional response aligns with a character and situation that matter to me, she is overwhelming. As much as I loved Wharton’s novel, this is the first book that has truly moved me. Claude’s death was inevitable—given his life situation, no other ending seemed remotely likely—and yet the event itself brought me close to tears. He mattered to me in a way no character had, to this point. I won’t forget him.
The novel, though, leaves me wondering. I wonder why the novel is entitled “One of Ours”: what does Cather mean by it? I wonder what came of Enid, away in distant China; I wonder what happened to her there, and what she thought when she heard that Claude was gone. Cather sets up to write a broad epic novel, only to tie up ends rapidly once the central plot point is resolved. I think it’s a weakness, or at least I perceived it as one. Cather’s work, though, leaves me in no doubt that she could write, and well. Given that this is not one of her “famous” novels (O Pioneers! and My Antonia take that title, I think), I am left very curious to read more of her work—she is a writer I can (and did) enjoy.
As a depiction of the narrow boundaries of small farm life in Nebraska in the 1910s, the novel works well, but I’ll admit it doesn’t raise many topics or concepts that startled me. I am a little enlightened by the gap between farm and town—the contrast with Lincoln, Nebraska, which I think of as fairly “small”, was interesting, and leaves me wondering how cosmopolitan these mid-size Midwest towns really were at the turn of the century. But the most deeply interesting ideas here related to the men at war. World War I is not much discussed by Americans. We don’t seem to see it as our war. But as Cather demonstrates, the war has a major effect on the psyches of those who survive it. I’d heard the song “How Will You Keep Them Down On The Farm, After They’ve Seen Paris?” but it had never really occurred to me that the real question was, how will you return “them” to peace after they’ve seen the trenches? My friend, Sebastian Lukasik, even wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on this general topic: I really should read what he had to say, since I am not quite done with what it meant for Claude and his companions to leave their homes for France. This novel brought home the impact that the Great War must have had in a new way…a way that helps me see the Twenties in a new light, as well as isolationism. For historical purposes, a fascinating novel and one that receives very high marks.
I give One of Ours the rating “Well worth your time, especially if you care about World War I”. I won’t call this a must-read, since it’s certainly a little uneven, and the plot takes a little patience in the early going. But I found it very rewarding, and anyone with an interest in World War I (both its impact on life at home, and its impact on the soldiers and the French citizenry) would get a lot out of it, I feel. A very good book, overall.
I wrestled with whether or not to talk about Claude’s death…I still don’t know if I made the right call in revealing it. I intentionally avoided the ending to The Age of Innocence (the right call there, I think), but I didn’t think I could talk about what this book meant to me without getting into Claude’s death, especially the passage I am going to leave it with. One of the things Cather explores deeply (and which, if I had nothing but time, I would spend a lot more time delving into) is what the war meant to these men, and how it would change them in the future. Some of these statements are a little over-the-top, stylistically—in her desire to get these ideas across, she can become a little too earnest. And that may be true of this last passage. But at the end of the novel, Mrs. Wheeler, Claude’s mother, reflects on his death, and I want you to consider what she has to say: it’s a controversial idea, I think, and I’m still making sense of it, myself. And now, Willa Cather:
When she can see nothing that has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude’s letters over again and reassures herself; for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. … He died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be. And those were beautiful beliefs to die with. Perhaps it was as well to see that vision, and then see no more. She would have dreaded the awakening,—she sometimes even doubts whether he could have borne all that at last, desolating disappointment. One by one the heroes of that war, the men of dazzling soldiership, leave prematurely the world they have come back to. Airmen whose deeds were tales of wonder, officers whose names made the blood of youth beat faster, survivors of incredible dangers,—one by one they quietly die by their own hand. Some do it in obscure lodging houses, some in their office, where they seemed to be carrying on their business like other men. Some slip over a vessel’s side and disappear into the sea. When Claude’s mother hears of these things, she shudders and presses her hands tight over her breast, as if she had him there. She feels as if God had saved him from some horrible suffering, some horrible end. For as she reads, she thinks those slayers of themselves were all so like him; they were the ones who had hoped extravagantly,—who in order to do what they did had to hope extravagantly, and to believe passionately. And they found they had hoped and believed too much. But one she knew, who could ill bear disillusion . . . safe, safe.