Though I had heard of Willa Cather, I had never read her books and had no plans to. Then Hope’s great review of Cather’s My Antonia piqued my interest.
When ten-year-old Jim Burden’s parents died, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Arriving on the same train was a Czech (called Bohemian then) family, the Shimerdas, who became Jim’s grandparents’ neighbors.
The Shimerdas had one crooked relative in the area who sold them his cave of a home and some equipment for much more than they were worth. Since they could not speak English, couldn’t ask for advice, and didn’t know any better, they paid his prices. But that meant almost all the money they brought with them was gone. The family had a hard time getting started, not only because of language barriers, poverty, and getting acclimated to new ways, but also for lack of what Jim’s grandmother called horse-sense.
The oldest daughter of the family was a bright, eager girl a few years older than Jim named Antonia (pronounced with accents on the first and third syllables—An’-ton-EE-ah). She learned English more quickly than the rest, and she and Jim became childhood friends traipsing over the countryside together. Jim taught two of the Shimerda girls English, and Antonia spent time helping Jim’s grandmother in the kitchen.
After a few years, Jim’s grandparents got too old to maintain the farm and moved into town. Antonia and many of the other immigrant girls worked in town and sent money home.
The story is told from Jim’s point of view, and he describes their adventures and relates many stories of townsfolk. We also see Antonia’s growth and development through his eyes. Though he had something of a crush on her for a while, he becomes more of a longtime family friend. Later he goes to college and law school and returns home less frequently, but he does see Antonia at intervals. She’s had a very hard life on many fronts, but maintained a strong spirit. He says of her near the end, “I know so many women who have kept all the things that she had lost, but whose inner glow has faded. Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life.”
The book is partly about growing up on the prairie in the late 19th century. Cather herself moved to Nebraska from Virginia as a child, as Jim Burden did. Partly the book is about the immigrant experience of that time. But ultimately I think the story is about the resilience of people like Antonia.
Unfortunately, some people’s ideas of immigrants hasn’t changed much over time:
I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia’s father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all ‘hired girls.’
I liked Jim’s (Cather’s?) summation:
Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.
I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigour which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women.
The girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.
I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into their own, and I have. To-day the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the mistresses.
I love how Cather phrases some things:
Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and to flap its wings there, warning human beings away.
We burrowed down in the straw and curled up close together, watching the angry red die out of the west and the stars begin to shine in the clear, windy sky.
Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things.
The week following Christmas brought in a thaw, and by New Year’s Day all the world about us was a broth of grey slush, and the guttered slope between the windmill and the barn was running black water.
In the winter bleakness a hunger for colour came over people, like the Laplander’s craving for fats and sugar.
The sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky.
This book is the third in Cather’s Prairie trilogy, O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark being the first two.
I enjoyed listening to the audiobook nicely narrated by Grover Gardner. I looked up some quotes in the online Gutenberg version and noticed some differences in the introduction there from my version. Wikipedia explains differences between the first and later editions. There are a number of Kindle editions at various prices.
I thoroughly enjoyed My Antonia. Some sources say this is Cather’s best, so her other work may fall short of this one. But I’d still like to explore some of her other books.
I’m counting this book as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.
Have you read My Antonia or Cather’s other books? What did you think?