After publishing her pioneer trilogy and numerous short stories, Willa Cather turned her writer’s craft to the effects of World War I with One of Ours (1922). A Pulitzer winner, it is often touted as a moving story of war, glory, and martyrdom. Critics responded that it was clichéd, recycling a sappy tale of glory for the greater good. Interestingly enough, Cather’s discussion of the Nebraskan landscape in Part I and the French countryside in Part II reveal that her protagonist Claude is in fact redeemed in the landscape of France, not in America, as with earlier novels. The story deals with a number of ironies that Cather was beginning to face, ranging from a duplicitous sense of home to an idea of wholeness in an immigrant’s return to the land.

As a young man of nineteen working on the family farm, Claude Wheeler enjoys and finds an easy refreshment in his natural surroundings. Cather describes Claude racing to the barn at sunrise as “the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek, a clear little stream with a sand bottom, that curled and twisted playfully about through the south section of the big Wheeler ranch.”[1] Later as he finds reprieve from an unpleasant morning of work for his father, Claude enjoys a picnic lunch and cold beer with his immigrant friend Ernest as the “stream trickled by under the willow roots with a cool, persuasive sound” where he could “forget his own vexations and chagrins.” Unfortunately, the peaceful bottoms of Lovely Creek are but a brief sanctuary for a home life that holds meager promise.

Claude is disappointed. His negative moods parallel a growing idea that the land could be a source of trouble. From the moment he is forced to attend Bible college, Claude felt “bitterly about the way he had been brought up” and hides himself in the balcony at the Lincoln theatre because he “looked like a green country boy.” In essence, Claude felt like a clod in part because his own father Nat Wheeler perpetuated this dejection. Cather relates a childhood story where Nat chops down a fruiting cherry tree as a practical joke so that his wife and Claude could harvest the cherries more easily from the top branches. Five-year-old Claude was horrified upon finding the tree and “for days afterward . . . went down to the orchard and watched the tree grow sicker, wilt, and wither away. God would surely punish a man who could do that, he thought.” This is a critical moment for young Claude because he realizes that the land and its resources can be abused.

By winter, as Claude and his friend Ernest speak of their futures, their very environment reflects the change in their seasons of life. The Lovely Creek, no longer lovely, now “trickled thinly along, black between two jagged crusts of melting ice.” When questioned, Ernest says he will lead a comfortable life as a farmer while Claude insists he is “lost in another kind of life in which ideas played but little part.” Soon after, Nat Wheeler announces that Claude will take on the family farm, or as one friend puts it, “You’ve got to stay on the old place and make it pay the debts.” And so, all choice is removed from Claude, and he resigns himself to work the land, not relate to it.

As Claude takes on the cares and responsibilities of the farm, more of his moody nature is revealed—“Day after day he flung himself upon the land and planted it with what was fermenting in him.” Sowing his discontent and sweating through his burdens produces little. He doesn’t understand what is valued, he grows bitter about wasting money on new machinery he would have to fix, he waxes critical about the native trees being “cut down and grubbed up” while orchards were left untended. Late Willa Cather scholar James Woodress terms his nature “too sensitive and fine-grained to accept the coarse realities of farm life and the crass prosperity of a materialistic world.”[2] Ironically, his first love interest, Enid, perceives him to be free in spirit and free to marry with a generous acreage. As their relationship progresses, his hopes for his own happy farm and ideal marriage are quickly crushed by her heartless love.

Unlike her pioneer novels, Cather has created a negative spiral for Claude. He had tilled hard at first but now is trapped in a life he did not choose. Claude’s fragile hopes in the Nebraskan landscape, a desire for home, for love, are utterly cut off, but he does see a way of escape. America’s entry into the war is imminent, and he is quickly commissioned into the infantry and sent to France.

Though Claude finds a revitalizing freedom in his Nebraska departure, Woodress notes that he really is “a pretty ordinary person, much like other young men who went off to war in 1917 from the Midwest . . . a hopeless romantic and idealist who believes in the myth of his culture.”[3] Claude’s idealism is liberally shared among the new recruits—“all came to give and not to ask, and what they offered was just themselves; their big, red hands, their strong backs, the steady, honest, modest look in their eyes.” Cather’s description of the French countryside easily appears more alive and bountiful than that of Nebraska. Where Claude’s pre-scripted life in Nebraska had drained him of his ideals and even a meaningful worldview, now Claude feels free to embrace another culture.

Almost instantly, Claude’s relationship with this new land flourishes, as if meeting a new character for the first time. He notes color, light, and pattern in the world around him. As the troop trains travel east, Claude is astounded by the vivid landscape: “Deeper and deeper into flowery France! . . . Fields of wheat, fields of oats, fields of rye; all the low hills and rolling uplands clad with harvest. And everywhere, in the grass, in the yellowing grain, along the road-bed, the poppies spilling and streaming.” These first impressions of France have a lasting effect.

Symbolizing a renewal of relationship with the land, his first meeting with his hostess Madame Joubert “occurs under a cherry tree, still alive and productive in the midst of man-induced chaos.”[4] As the story continues, Claude identifies his billet not as a home, but home. Gone are memories of burden and obligation. Sentiment and ideals hold sway. He, in fact, appears more satisfied here than in America because the French, their culture, their legends are all part of a romantic mystique fomenting within Claude. In his mind, all things French, all things new, become the simple packaged solution to his disillusionment with Nebraska.

As the French people struggle to regain a normalcy after years of German occupation, they also tend and care for the land, and so Cather paints it as a cherished source. Unlike the cottonwoods native to Nebraska, where farmers there saw them as blight, Claude observes how the cottonwoods along the French fields are allowed to flourish en masse. Amid the ruins at the Red Cross barracks, Claude is astounded at the beauty of the ordered garden with its trained pear tree full of red fruit, “shaven grass plot,” and small bushes that were spared from the fires.

Mlle. de Courcy remarks that the French people’s sadness is only in the loss of their trees, more than in the loss of cattle or horses. When a one-armed French veteran describes how he will tend four blasted locust trees to restore them, Claude comments, “How much it must mean to a man to love his country like this . . . to love its trees and flowers, to nurse it when it was sick, and tend its hurts with one arm.” De Courcy then asks Claude to describe his home, his land. As he does, he ironically paints a romantic vista of fields and harvest, Lovely Creek, the timber claim, and the seasons, without mentioning a single negative. All that remains in his memories are his ideals, a Nebraska that could have been, ideals that find companionship only in the symbiosis of the French people and their land. For Claude, the French appear to possess an innate sense of the land’s needs, one that Nebraskans have forgotten in the drive for expansion and profit.

Claude’s ever-burgeoning obsession with France never wanes, and he doesn’t survive to return to Nebraska. Symbolizing his own death, the sunset Claude surveys epitomizes his golden view:

[He] found the land of France turning gold. All along the river valleys the poplars and cottonwoods had changed from green to yellow, – evenly coloured, looking like candle flames in the mist and rain. Across the fields, along the horizon they ran, like torches passed from hand to hand, and all the willows by the little streams had become silver. The vineyards were green still, thickly spotted with curly, blood-red branches . . . this beautiful land, this beautiful people.

Mlle. de Courcy said the returning French refugees have all they need if they have the ground and hope. This is more than patriotism, more than ownership. It’s an empathy with the land that gestates within Claude to bring about an inner renewal that the physical land of Nebraska never could. In this dichotomy of Nebraska and France, the land abounds when it is worked by those who empathize with and nurture it. It is joy-filled, not man-handled. Its denizens work with it, not against it, and thus Claude finds his wholeness, not in his native land, but in this immigrant landscape.

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Notes:

[1] Cather, Willa. One of Ours (1922; repr., San Bernardino, CA: Seven Treasures Publications, 2009).

[2] James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 324.

[3] 326.

[4] Ibid.

The featured image is “Landscape With a Calm” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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