Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Crazy Ivar's House of Hammocks

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: 5-73

So, for a while I thought that the Bergsons, also known as the "Swedish girl and her brothers" from yesterday's post, were actually Norwegian. But it turns out that they're Swedish after all, and I was right all along! Sorry, Scandinavians, I didn't mean to step on any toes, there. It's usually Finland and Sweden that everyone confuses, anyway. Well, that and Sweden and Switzerland. I'm going somewhere with this post, I swear.

Anyway, the girl's name is Alexandra. It quickly becomes clear that she's the leader in her family, and she takes over the management of the farm after her father dies. The book jumps several years at a stretch, and later we see her deciding to keep the farm and invest in more land when her younger brothers want to give up and trade for the richer fields nearer the river bluffs. Another sixteen years passes in a flash, and we see that her decision was the correct one - the farm has flourished and all three Bergson children are successful, though they split the land when the elder son, Lou, married, and are currently separate landowners. At this point, we also see Emil, the youngest son of the family, courting a local girl and struggling with his future. He doesn't know if he wants to stay in Nebraska, feels stifled by farming, but is unsure what else to do. He comes to Alexandra at one point and tells her he doesn't want to go to law school because choosing the wrong career is simply an easy way out. (Resonates a bit, that part.)

Then, out of the blue, Alexandra's long-lost friend, Carl Linstrum, comes back from the East. We met him very briefly at the beginning, but his family moved away quite quickly. Regardless of the fact that Alexandra is 40, (which is, of course, far too old to even consider something as reckless as marriage) the two fall in love, or at least comfortable and attractive like. Alexandra's brothers (excluding Emil), however, strongly object to the match because they don't want her to give her land and money to Carl, who's something of a penniless vagabond. She argues, quite convincingly and confidently, that they have no say in her actions, and that neither they nor their children have any right to her land, anyway. Nor, she goes on, does their public embarrassment at her supposedly inappropriate actions really matter to her. Carl hears about the argument, however, and tells Alexandra to give him a year in which to make some money so that the relationship won't seem like a predatory one on his part, and he goes off to Alaska. Emil also decides to go to make his fortune, though he's heading for Mexico City.

Oh, I forgot to mention: there's also a local old guy called Crazy Ivar, (which is a completely excellent name, by the way*) who's something of an enigma. He makes hammocks, is able to cure animals of illnesses, can charm the birds out of the sky, and also has fits of madness from time to time (that I'm going to go ahead and guess are petit mal epileptic seizures, but it's conjecture). Eventually, he loses his land and Alexandra takes him in and looks after him, which is another source of scandal and subsequent petty annoyance by Alexandra's brothers. (They're kind of jerks, in case you hadn't gathered.)

That's where we are. Cather maintains the almost stark prose that she often used in Death Comes for the Archbishop, but there's less of the candid and beautiful description that I had grown accustomed to by the end of that novel. Perhaps it's because Nebraska isn't beautiful enough to warrant it, but I think the landscape just has less of an emotional pull on Cather personally. The story's good, though, despite the large jumps in time, and I'm enjoying the way that Cather writes women, which I didn't get to experience very much in the last book, since it was mostly about priests.

Oddly, the contractions in this book are separated in the extremely old-fashioned style, as in "did n't." That always throws me off when I read it; it makes my brain skip a beat.

*You know what else is an excellent name? Sir Henry Shrapnel. Apparently, he's the guy who invented the first fragmentary artillery shells, so they named them after him. I learned that from Trivial Pursuit yesterday, and it was awesome.

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