"Last summer, in a season of heat, Jim Burden and I happened to be crossing Iowa on the same train."
Willa Cather wrote several novels set in the pioneering times of early Nebraska. Earlier this year, I read my first Cather novel O Pioneers! which raised my expectations for My Antonia. I don’t think I could ever recapture the emotions I had while reading O Pioneers! It was such a wonderful surprise to find a writer I hadn’t really heard much about with such talent. Both novels are very similar not only in setting but in voice. If you’ve never read Cather before, I’d recommend either one.
My Antonia is about the recollections of Jim Burden, a man who came to Nebraska from Virginia as a boy. After his parents’ death, he goes to live with his grandparents on their farm. At the same time, Antonia Shimerda and her Bohemian family have come from Europe to begin their lives as farmers. Antonia is a lively young girl, the apple of her father’s eye, and very intelligent. Jim can’t help but admire her. However, the Shimerdas are not prepared for the harshness of the prairie environment. They rely heavily on the Burden’s help to get them through the first year.
The Burdens eventually move to the town of Black Hawk. Jim’s grandmother is afraid that Antonia, who she has come to love, will be ruined by the hard work on the farm. She convinces her family to let her come work in the town as a ‘hired girl’ or maid for another family, the Harlings. They come to care for her but the townsfolk look down upon the hired girls who are immigrant girls from farms. The hired girls are free spirits where the town girls are ‘refined.’ Jim continues his admiration for Antonia and is disgusted with the men of the town ("these white-handed, high-collared clerks and bookkeepers"), who court the hired girls but marry the Black Hawk girls.
After Antonia has a falling-out with the Harlings over the rowdy dances she attends, she becomes a housekeeper for the hated Cutters. Jim inadvertently saves Antonia from disaster while she’s working there. Antonia then moves back to the farm and Jim goes off to college. As time goes by, Jim loses contact with Antonia and only hears about her through third-hand information. In the end, Jim finds his Antonia "battered but not diminished."
My Antonia is more of a collection of stories about the people who shaped the prairies than about one girl, although her experiences are woven throughout. Some of these recollections take an unexpectedly violent turn that I found rather jarring, but such is life I suppose; we go about our day to day business in blissful ignorance when tragedy finds us. There are also great success stories, like the hired girl Lena who goes on to do so well in the city.
Like in O Pioneers!, Cather paints with her words. The prairie comes to life on the page.
"On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was setting just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share- black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun."
One thing I should mention, this isn’t in the usual form a novel generally takes. It’s more like a journal and sometimes seems disjointed. Jim says, "I didn’t have time to arrange it; I simply wrote down all that her name recalls to me." Don’t let that discourage you though, it’s a lovely read.