Monday, April 20, 2015

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

The power of the prairie
Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia was originally published in 1918. It is the final novel in her Prairie Trilogy, following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. Since the three books don’t share any common characters or setting, the designation of trilogy is questionable, so don’t feel like you have to read either of those preceding volumes in order to enjoy this book.

My Ántonia is set in and around the fictional town of Black Hawk, Nebraska. The story is narrated by Jim Burden, an attorney, who recalls memories of his boyhood, in particular his friendship with a girl named Ántonia Shimerda. Jim loses his parents at the age of ten, and moves from Virginia to Nebraska to live on his grandparents’ farm. On the train out West he encounters the Shimerda family, just arrived from Bohemia, who turn out to be his new neighbors. The Shimerdas are a proud and hardworking family, but they don’t take readily to farming the prairie, and they eke out a poor existence form their land. The Burdens befriend the Bohemian family and offer them as much help as they can, but the two families don’t always see eye to eye.

Jim and his grandparents eventually move into the town of Black Hawk. Ántonia is not far behind, for like many immigrant farm girls, she takes a job in town as a household servant and once again becomes Jim’s neighbor. Because the immigrant families don’t speak the language as well as the native-born residents of Black Hawk, they are treated as second-class citizens. No “American” boy would ever consider marrying one of these Norwegian or Bohemian hired girls, yet that doesn’t lessen their attraction. Having been raised in the country, Ántonia and her foreign friends are more free-spirited than their city-bred counterparts, with no inhibitions about socializing or dancing with men. Thus these girls are branded as bad girls by the gossips of the town, whether they deserve such a reputation or not.

In plain-spoken but poetic prose, Cather brilliantly depicts both the pleasures and pains of growing up in small-town middle America. Jim’s recollection of youth includes many nostalgic joys, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. When Cather shows the negative aspects of Black Hawk—its insularity, its conventionality, its narrow-mindedness—she does so in a matter-of-fact way that’s free of condescension or cynicism. The relationship between Jim and Ántonia is fascinating to watch as it progresses, but the supporting cast is equally well-drawn and engaging. Even when Cather goes off on a tangent to examine some of these minor characters, the result is fascinating. The story of Peter and Pavel is a tour de force, and ought to be excerpted and inserted into every high school literature textbook. The book’s final act is a little weak and unimpressive compared to all that came before, yet overall My Ántonia is a masterpiece of American naturalist literature. Cather finds real epic drama in the everyday lives of ordinary people as they try to make a life for themselves in this isolated hamlet on the Great Plains. If you grew up in a small town or rural area, My Ántonia will make you consider your own life and times, and how the people and places you knew in your childhood shaped the person you are today.

My Ántonia is generally considered Cather’s greatest work, though I think it’s a toss-up between this and O Pioneers! The first and third books in the Prairie Trilogy are both excellent, while the middle volume, The Song of the Lark, is clearly the weak link in the chain and a poor fit with the other two in terms of style and subject matter. For any fan of classic literature looking for that Great American Novel, My Ántonia is a must-read.
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