Read: One of Ours by Willa Cather
Drinking: Cranberry Blood Orange Rooibus, Bentley
Willa Cather’s novel of World War I was published in 1922. It is an immediate reflection on the war and America’s role, but more than that, it is about the young men who found their place in the world on the battlefields of France.
Claude Wheeler, our protagonist, is a dissatisfied young man, the son of a wealthy farmer, as the story opens. Although he is in college, it is a religious college, where he chafes at the poor quality of teaching. Claude is a misfit in his quiet farming town. He longs for more from life than farming in Nebraska and buying new gadgets.
Honestly, I really disliked Claude. I loved Cather’s descriptions of Nebraska and Colorado, and Claude’s more sophisticated town friends, the Erlichs, but I found him to be a whiny and annoying mama’s boy. He is easily offended by minor things – usually something one of his brothers says that is harmless, but sometimes they intentionally wind him up. It is clear that Cather has strong dislike of businessmen based on her descriptions of Claude’s older brother Bayliss, but it is unclear what professions she does prefer – besides soldier, which comes up much later. None of the men in the first half of the novel are portrayed with much sympathy.
Once Claude enlisted, however, the story picked up. He was still an annoying mama’s boy, but he matured somewhat. By the end of the novel, I quite liked him. I thought his character developed well once he got to France and was an officer. He was still offended by strange things, like anther officer joining his company, but it was muted by his clear enthusiasm of finally finding his place in the world.
The other downside to One of Ours is the clear romanticism of the war and of the French civilians whose homes and lives were destroyed by it. Cather describes the destruction and death casually. Dead bodies in trenches are not treated with the disgust one would expect for the first few battles. The civilians are all friendly, kind, and don’t seem to mind that they have lost sons, daughters, homes, and had to house military officers. The Germans were universally despised, of course.
Overall, it is not a bad book, but I do wish I had an annotated version. I may see if I can get some Cliff Notes to see if I missed any obscure references. The novel is worth reading not for Claude, but for the smaller pictures Cather paints of landscapes and people that he encounters.