Sunday, April 29, 2012

"When There Was Nothing to Preserve, She Began to Pickle"

Pioneer ladies before a sod house on the Great Plains.

In her O Pioneers! Willa Cather captured the efforts to create real homes of the women who with their husbands first came to the harsh landscape of the Great Plains. Cather describes the mother of her Norwegian heroine Alexandra Bergson like this:
John Bergson [Alexandra's father] had married beneath him, but he had married a good wife. Mrs. Bergson was a fair-skinned, corpulent woman, heavy and placid like her son, Oscar, but there was something comfortable about her; perhaps it was her own love of comfort. For eleven years she had worthily striven to maintain some semblance of household order amid conditions that made order very difficult. Habit was very strong with Bergson, and her unremitting efforts to repeat the routine of her old life among new surroundings had done a great deal to keep the family from disintegrating morally and getting careless in their ways. The Bergsons had a log house, for instance, only because Mrs. Bergson would not live in a sod house.

She missed the fish diet of her own country, and twice every summer she sent the boys to the river, twenty miles to the southward, to fish for channel cat. When the children were little she used to load them all into the wagon, the baby in its crib, and go fishing herself. Alexandra often said that if her mother were cast upon a desert island, she would thank God for her deliverance, make a garden, and find something to preserve.  
Preserving was almost a mania with Mrs. Bergson. Stout as she was, she roamed the scrubby banks of Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild creature in search of prey. She made a yellow jam of the insipid ground-cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon peel; and she made a sticky dark conserve of garden tomatoes. She had experimented even with the rank buffalo-pea, and she could not see a fine bronze cluster of them without shaking her head and murmuring "What a pity!" When there was nothing to preserve, she began to pickle. The amount of sugar she used in these processes was sometimes a serious drain upon the family resources.

She was a good mother, but she was glad when her children were old enough not to be in her way in the kitchen. She had never quite forgiven John Bergson for bringing her to the end of the earth; but, now that she was there, she wanted to be left alone to reconstruct her old life in so far as that was possible. She could still take some comfort in the world if she had bacon in the cave, glass jars on the shelves, and sheets in the press. She disapproved of all her neighbors because of their slovenly housekeeping, and the women thought her very proud. Once when Mrs. Bergson, on her way to Norway Creek, stopped to see old Mrs. Lee, the old woman hid in the haymow "for fear Mis' Bergson would catch her barefoot."
O Pioneers! is wonderful in many ways. Willa Cather is an American treasure.


Jodi said...

I own a copy of O Pioneers but I haven't read it yet (your post makes me want to read it). I have, however, finished two Conrad Richter books--The Grandfathers, and Sea of Grass. Now I am starting The Waters of Kronos and The Light in the Forest.

Woman of the House said...

I read O Pioneers probably eight or ten years ago. Maybe I will read it again after I read everything else in my TBR pile, which is about three feet high!

Anonymous said...

"Flavoring it with lemon peel"

lemon peel!

That would have been a real treasure, don't you think?!