My Antonia by Willa Cather

I’d included My Antonia on my Classics Club list of books to read because I’d enjoyed reading A Lost Lady a few years ago (my post on that book is here). So when it popped up in the Classics Club Spin as the book to read in August/September I was pleased.

I liked it, but not as much as A Lost Lady. I think it’s because it’s a bit fragmented, made up of  a series of short stories. But it’s beautifully written with vivid descriptions of people and places. Published in 1918 it’s set in America at the beginning of the 20th century – the story of immigrant settlers and in particular that of Antonia Shimerda and her family as told by Jim Burden. Jim and Antonia meet as children, when he had come to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Antonia’s family is from Bohemia, speaking very little English and living in a sort of shed, little more than a cave. They spend a lot of time together as Jim teaches Antonia to speak English.

Jim recounts various episodes as they grow up together. Gradually they drift apart and lose contact, as Jim left for college eventually becoming a lawyer, whilst Antonia stayed in Nebraska. They meet again years later. It’s a story of hardship and suffering, of poverty, people struggling to make a living from the land, and of the attitudes towards immigrants, women and children. It’s also about being an outsider and the importance of belonging, which makes it most poignant that to her father Antonia is ‘My Antonia’.

But the thing that stands out for me is the beauty of Cather’s descriptions of the countryside and as I read I highlighted many passages – this for example:

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 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.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie. (page 186)

But it’s not just descriptive, it conveys the timelessness of human nature, of how people interact and think, their prejudices, unreliability and of their love for each other. I was struck by this definition of happiness:

I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become 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. (page 11)

Yet this is a sad book, full of nostalgia and poignancy. There’s such a contrast between the hardness of the life of the settlers and the loving gentle family life that Jim’s grandparents provide for him and their generosity towards their neighbours. Overall, though it is the character of Antonia that caught my attention and in the episodes that weren’t about her I lost interest somewhat. So, a mixed reaction – there are parts that I thought were outstanding and parts that left me rather unsatisfied.

7 thoughts on “My Antonia by Willa Cather”

  1. Margaret – I read this one so many years ago I’d forgotten much of the story. Thanks for reminding me of how good Cather was at descriptions. You make some well-taken points too about the characters; I remember liking Antonia’s character very much.

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  2. This is the only Cather novel I have read and I agree completely with your review. I listened to an audio book while traveling and it was a great book to have read to you with all the beautiful descriptions. I have been thru Nebraska many times and the only thing that has changed is there are no sod houses left and no horse and buggys. It’s beautiful.

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  3. I can’t imagine why I’ve never read this book. My paternal great grandparents homesteaded in Nebraska in the 19th century. By the time of the setting of My Antonia they had returned to Illinois after a series of unfortunate events. The one that broke them was that my grandfather caught polio, so they went back to where medical treatment was better available for him. Even though the book is set later, I might get a much better feel for where my grandfather and his sister were born. At that time there were renegade “half-breeds” in the area who killed one of their party, and my great grandfather lost an eye in a wood chopping accident. That’s why my dad and I were born in Illinois. 🙂

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  4. This is one of those books I read in high school and didn’t much care for. My experience has been that I end up loving these books when I reread them as an adult, and judging by your review and the excerpts, I think I could love this book. I’ve been through Red Cloud, NE where Willa Cather is from, and the prairie is a magical (but hard) place to be.

    I loved the description of happiness. Passage like that make any book worth reading.

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