It’s taken me long enough but the experience of reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia was well worth the wait. This is a glorious tale that celebrates the wild flat landscape of Nebraska and the people who settled there, wresting a living from its great plains in the decades between 1880 and 1910.
It’s a land that seems endless when seen for the first time through the eyes of 10 year-old orphan Jim Burden. “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska,” he marvels as he rumbles by train towards a new life with his grandparents. Over time he gets to experience and to fall in love with this land of “windy springs and blazing summers”, and the beauty created even in the most bitter of winters. Waking one day to snow he finds for example: “The sky was brilliantly blue and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding.”
This is the land which promises a new future for immigrant families, among them the Shimerdas family from Bohemia (current day Czech Republic). They are woefully ill-equipped for a life as farmers and have been conned into buying a homestead offering little comfort; most of it has yet to be cultivated and the family have to live in what Jim’s grandmother sees as not much better than a badger hole. One of their daughters, Ántonia, becomes Jim’s closest companion.
My Ántonia is Jim’s recollection of that friendship. It endures when each of them leave the prairie and move to the town of Black Hawk where Jim will attend school and Ántonia take up a job as a cook and housekeeper. Their paths diverge when Jim goes off to university, becomes a lawyer, gets married and settles in New York. Twenty years pass before they meet again when Jim finally returns to Nebraska and hears what has become of his childhood friend.
Although this is a memoir which celebrates a way and a time of life, Cather doesn’t hold back from showing how hard things were for the settlers whose lives were at the mercy of the weather. But she also shows their resilience and determination, particularly among the younger generation. Despite the dire predictions in Black Hawk that Ántonia and her two closest girl friends, Tina and Lena, will all come to a bad end once they start frequenting the dance halls, Lena becomes a successful dressmaker with her own business, and Tina amasses a fortune in property. It’s only Ántonia whose life is blighted. On his return Jim prepares himself to find his friend a broken and aged woman, a shadow of her former self. Instead he comes to appreciate that her value lies not in material wealth or status but in the fullness of her life and her nurturing, generous presence.
She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
Despite the title, My Ántonia is not solely about Ántonia. Jim also tells the stories of the men hired to work on his grandparent’s farm; other immigrant farmers like the Russian brothers, Pavel and Peter; some of the other farm girls and the inhabitants of Black Hawk. The landscape becomes another kind of character; it’s the thread that holds together a novel that is essentially a collage of episodes.
At times Cather makes the landscape and weather act like a chorus – in one deathbed scene for example winds “impatiently” shake the doors and windows of the house and howling coyotes echo the dying man’s moans. At other times she shows an extraordinary psychological bond that her characters form with the landscape. Jim in particular feels a close affinity with nature:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
And he shares this with Antonia. At the end of a day of adventures they sit quietly to appreciate the sunset:
Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking 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.
What I loved about Willa Cather’s writing was that it felt unobtrusive, She segues almost effortlessly from episodes in her characters’ lives into descriptions of the natural world using a style that is deceptively plain. It’s not until you stop and re-read some of the passages that you fully appreciate their complexity and originality — this is not writing that shouts ‘look at me, look how clever I’m being’ and yet it experiments with narrative form throughout, with shifts in focus, interruptions in continuity and numerous inset stories.
I realise I risk making My Ántonia sound like some rose-tinted confection. It is of course a nostalgia-fest; how could it not be when it begins with two passengers on a train recalling a girl they both admired who “More than any other person we remembered … seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” It is indeed one of the warmest of books I’ve read in many years but there is plenty of sorrow amidst the joy Cather describes to make it far from certain that she is simply mythologising a way of life.
The uncertainty about how to interpret this novel was another reason I enjoyed reading My Ántonia. The title suggests this is a novel about one girl, Antonia, but in fact she is absent for much of the novel so is it really Jim’s story not Antonia’s? If it’s her story but told by someone who was a witness to her life, then how reliable is the account? That use of the possessive in the title suggests that Jim sees Antonia as his own property, a woman whose image is his to define. Although we do get to hear other people’s reports of her they are all filtered through Jim.
One theory suggests Jim’s role is not to tell a story, more to convey an emotion and a sense of the “precious, the incommunicable past”. The past is certainly on Jim’s mind as he finishes his narrative but I interpreted the ending as an indication Jim has come to terms not just with the past but with his and has found peace with himself. As he says “I had the sense of coming home to myself and having found what a little circle a man’s experience is.”
The fact there is no single or clear-cut interpretation possible with My Ántonia made it a rich experience. It’s also made me hungry for more of Willa Cather.
About the book: My Ántonia was written in 1917 and published the following year. My edition is by Oxford World Classics. In the introduction to this edition, Janet Sharistanian descibes ho the book received almost unanimous praise immediately on publication. Cather herself, twenty years later, confided to a friend she felt the book “was the best thing I’ve done … I feel I’ve made a contribution to American letters with that book.”
About the author: Willa Cather was born in 1873, in rural Virginia. At the age of nine, she moved with her family to Nebraska, where she spent the remainder of her childhood. After university to began a career in journalism and then as a high school teacher. In the early 1900s she began to publish her first short stories which led to editorship of a magazine in New York. Her first novel Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912 but it was not until the following year with O Pioneers!, that she caught the attention of the public. It’s tempting to equate Willa Cather with Jim Burden given the similarities in their histories — both moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were ten years old; both went to the University of Nebraska and both settled in New York City. But the reality is that Cather was doing what many authors do, drawing on her personal knowledge to create a fiction.
Why I read this book: I had never heard of Willa Cather before I began this blog and started listening to podcasts. And then I heard and saw the name over and over again – Thomas at hogglestock.com is a particular fan and is currently reading all her books in date order of publication (see here for his update). Intrigued I bought a copy of My Ántonia Ali but then it sat on my bookshelves until I saw via posts by HeavenAli and Karen at Kaggsysbookramblings that the Virago Book Group on LibraryThing had chosen Cather as their author for the month of May. It was the nudge I needed to take the book off the shelf..