As you all know by now, I’ve been on a Willa Cather binge. If you’ve only read My Ántonia, keep going. She’s really a terrific writer and there’s more than just the Great Plains to be found in her writing. One of Ours is one such out-of-the-box example. Cather is interested in a global and national identity, as well as a local one. This novel plumbs the richness to be found in the individual.
Claude Wheeler is a farmer’s son with restless ambitions about becoming something great. He is bitter about being sent to a seminary college, since his fervor is more intellectual than religious. After a briefly promising relationship with an intellectual family, he is sent back home to tend his family’s farm. He makes a heartbreakingly poor choice in marriage to a woman who cares more for missionary work than him or sex. It is only when World War I breaks out that he begins to attain the purpose that he has been searching for all his life. Claude’s life begins to take shape when he enlists as a soldier and finds himself fighting in France for ideals of freedom and independence. Thus, the War becomes Claude’s personal war.
This is perhaps Cather’s most global text, and a very Modernist one at that. She takes you to the farm with its bucolic peace, but then she sweeps you to a trench where you understand the conditions and psychological states-of-mind in which the soldiers found themselves. It’s a skillful study of purpose, of war, and of the need to be considered “great.”