"...it was a hard destiny to be the exceptional person in a community, to be more gifted or more intelligent than the rest. For a girl it must be doubly hard."
"One of Ours" is Willa Cather's Pulitzer-prize winning story of a Nebraska youth who is killed in World War I, based on the life of her cousin.
An exceptional human being herself, Cather had previously written the best-selling novel "The Song of the Lark," in which a girl rises from poverty in a chain of seemingly-small events: some uplifting, some soul-killing.
The hero of "One of Ours" is also gifted. A son of pioneers, Claude Wheeler wants to see the world beyond the borders of his farm. Cather narrates the events that cause him to gradually allow his dreams to be subverted by illusion. How much more difficult is it for young men, when the dead-end violence of war is seen as an acceptable pathway for promising young lives?
Today illusions and false promises continue to lure many to enlist in the hopes of funding an otherwise unaffordable college education. In order to have a steady income, a pension and health care coverage.
Cather was astonished by the machinery of war unleashed in World War I. Siege guns. Poison gas.
To label "One of Ours" as a war book is to overlook the roots of war in our everyday lives. Here in Pennsylvania we make grenade-like weapons that injure and kill civilians in the name of security. We allow ourselves to be lured by the desire for security -- at the greater cost of freedom, democracy and humane behavior. We place greater and greater
distance between our actions and the violence caused. Witness the runaway success of drones. People don't want them in U.S. airspace but few object to having their joysticks here at home.
"...all things that might make the world beautiful -- love and kindness, leisure and art -- were shut up in prison, and [...] successful men like Bayliss Wheeler held the keys. The generous ones, who would let these things out to make people happy, were somehow weak, and could not break the bars."
Go forth and break some bars.