Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda meet as children on a train traveling from the east coast to Black Hawk, Nebraska, in the early 20th century. Jim has been orphaned and is on his way to live with his grandparents. Antonia, her parents, and siblings are Bohemian immigrants hoping to build a life on the prairie. Jim and Antonia become friends immediately, as Jim takes on the task of teaching her English, and it is through Jim's eyes that we see the Shimerdas' struggles and Antonia's resilient nature. Mr. Shimerda, a musician, cannot cope with his inability to protect his family from the hardships of their first winter on the Great Plains and commits suicide. Antonia works side by side with her brother to scratch a living from the family's farmstead. Later, she hires out in town, working first for Jim's grandparents and then for the horrible Cutters (two of the Cutters' hired girls have had to leave town because of pregnancies resulting from Mr. Wick Cutter's abuse).

Jim goes to school while Antonia works, but their friendship remains steadfast. Jim also gets to know many of Antonia's friends--immigrant girls from Norway, Sweden, Austria, and other European homelands. Even when Jim heads off to the university at Lincoln and then to Harvard, he keeps up with several of the girls, who let him know what has happened to Antonia--her life has not been easy. Jim becomes an attorney based in New York; he occasionally sees two of the other "hired girls" who have become successful businesswomen in San Francisco. After decades, they convince him to stop and visit Antonia. He finds her greatly aged--most of her teeth are gone--and still working hard, the mother of 11 children; her children speak Bohemian at home, learning English only when they go to school. But he also still finds her remarkable--her enjoyment of life, her love for her children, the way in which she has told the stories of her childhood adventures with Jim to her children. That shared experience, Jim realizes, has shaped them both.

Cather's writing style is straightforward and, except when describing the landscape, rather straightforward and plain. She has a remarkable sense of place and its effects on not only how one lives but how one thinks and feels. For young people who read this book today (I'm not sure if it's still a common assignment in high school), I would imagine the struggles of the immigrant families seem remarkably difficult to comfortable suburban students but may echo familiarly for today's immigrant children. One thing I don't understand is why Cather framed the book as Jim's recollections delivered to another friend from his youth whom he accidentally met on a train across Iowa. I understand the parallelism of the train journey, but overall this device seemed superfluous.

I did not love My Antonia, but I'm glad I read it, particularly for the spare yet often lovely language.

Favorite passages:
There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk 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.

I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal communication.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen.

I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.

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