by Willa Cather
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is the story of Claude Wheeler, an American farm boy who grows to manhood convinced that there is something more “splendid about life” than the quotidian existence he sees around him, that will be his future. Frustrated at his inability to attend anything but a small religious college, and entranced by glimpses of a more daring family who engage in intellectual debate and love the arts, he gets married but finds that his wife, too, lives only for Christian missionary work; sex and making a family mean nothing to her. He volunteers when World War I breaks out, and finds what he is looking for overseas. He becomes convinced he has found his true place in the world when he reaches the French countryside, despite the fierce fighting and disease that he faces.
It’s a slow-moving, lyrical novel, a portrait of a rural, agricultural, unsophisticated, isolationist, labor-intensive America, an America on the cusp of modernity, with no more wilderness to tame but without the worldliness and comforts of the post-WWII boom. I believe the book has been criticized for its third-hand scenes of war, but I found nothing particularly jarring or awkward about them as a reader; indeed, I was impressed with Cather’s ability to write so easily about this very male world. In all it’s a good book, perhaps a bit dated now and so not apt to change the reader’s life; but this very American tale of redemption and risk, of a man making his own way in a stifling world, is enhanced by Cather’s strong, romantic prose.