I had remembered nothing of this novel really – just knew that I had enjoyed it – probably twenty odd years ago. Whether my reading experience was affected by my tiredness this week, but although I did enjoy this book very much – I didn’t love the second half of the book as much as the first half – or as much as the Willa Cather novel I read a few months ago – O Pioneers. I would still recommend it highly though.
The introduction of My Antonia opens with two old friends travelling by train and reminiscing about a girl they had once known many years earlier. As a young boy of ten – Jim Burden travels to the plains of Nebraska to live with his grandparents. He quickly falls in love with the life they lead in the wide open spaces of the plains.
“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers...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. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”
Their nearest neighbours are the Shimerdas a Bohemian family struggling to live in pretty rough conditions. Their daughter is the Antonia of the title – four years older than Jim, she is a strong handsome girl, full of life, and Jim is captivated by her. They become great friends – and Jim helps to teach her English. The years pass – Jim and his grandparents move into town, and later Antonia follows as she is hired to work for neighbours of the Burden’s in Black Hawke. Each section of the novel charts a different part of Jim and Antonia’s lives. Their paths diverge – when Jim goes to university, Antonia stays behind, is deserted by a man, has a child and goes back to her parent’s farm. Jim sees Antonia very infrequently although she is often in his thoughts. Antonia is a strong sympathetic character – although only ever seen through Jim’s eyes – she seems to embody the pioneer spirit.
“Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade - that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer...She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true...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...All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.”
Willa Cather’s prose is deceptively simple – and yet she manages to evoke the Nebraskan landscape and the Pioneer life style perfectly. It is this landscape that is the real star of this novel.