My love for Willa Cather grows with every novel of hers I read. My Antonia is a remarkable book, about much more than pioneers and prairies and immigrants. It’s about spirit and strength and soul, embodied in the character of a Bohemian immigrant to the Nebraskan prairies, Antonia Shimerda. Told through the eyes of her great childhood friend Jim Burden, brought to the prairies to live with his grandparents after his parent’s deaths, Antonia’s life is laid bare for the reader; her liveliness, her beauty, her rarity, all shine out from Jim’s words. Despite hardship and loss and struggle and terrible mistakes, Antonia’s essence, her joy of life, her purity, her precious ability to find value and meaning in what others would dimiss as worthless, never diminish. Her optimism, determination, strength and independence of character mark her as a creature set apart from the rest of her contemporaries. Even dressed in rags and ploughing fields, there is a profundity, a grace, an elegance, about her. She is a force of nature, the spirit of America; she is at once simple and yet incomprehensibly complex.
Jim loves Antonia as he loves the prairies he grew up on. There is a timelessness, a reliability, a power, to them, that will never and can never change. Pioneer life is harsh; the prairies are lonely, windswept, often barren places. But amongst these lands and amongst these peoples, flowers blossom. Some, like Antonia’s father, are broken by their struggle to make a life in a strange country amongst hostile people and unyielding ground. Others, like Antonia, thrive on the challenges presented to them; make the best of what they have, and forge the best life they can, despite the struggles that attempt to destroy them. America is built on Antonias; pioneers, immigrants, brave people whose hearts didn’t fail them, and who saw only opportunity and beauty in the land that to others was a terrifying wilderness.
Jim’s tale charts the fluctuating fickleness of a teenager’s heart; the struggle between loyalty to a home town and the desire to escape; the lust for independence mixed with a desire to settle down, and the day to day lives of a myriad of people, brought together from far flung lands, and all coexisting in a tiny corner of the Nebraskan prairie in a fascinating blend of cultures. Overshadowing this world is the legacy of Antonia’s father, a sensitive, intelligent, musical man, whose inability to provide for his family and homesickness for the Czech village he left behind caused him to commit suicide during the first long, cold, debilitating winter that greeted the family on their arrival. Mr Shimerda doesn’t make it to see the spring, and the new life and new hope that comes with it, but Antonia does. She weathers the darkest of the night, just before the dawn, and she knows that no matter what, spring will come. Her faith, and her belief in the new country she has adopted as her own, will see her through a life frought with hardship, and only enrich, rather than defeat, her spirit.
Willa Cather writes with a passion, a beauty, and a clarity, that is unique, and wonderful, and never failing. I was swept away by My Antonia, to a place and a time and a people I have become increasingly fascinated by since beginning my reading across the breadth of American literature and history. The people who populate Cather’s world on the prairies are remarkable. Their courage is breathtaking, their kindness, generosity and neighbourliness, despite none of them having much, are admirable. To leave everything and everyone behind that you knew, to come to a land you had never set eyes on, and had no idea how to farm, build on, or survive in, speaking no words of the native language, with none of the skills you would find necessary to cope with such a harsh way of life, and plough ahead regardless, is just incredible, and to have done it over one hundred years ago, with no ways to communicate with the old world at all, makes me just stand back in awe. The characters Cather paints for us effortlessly on her exquistely written pages are rich, alive, wonderful; examples of the essential strength and goodness and bravery and hopefulness of humanity, and Cather’s sensitive, powerful portrayal of them is magnificent. In My Antonia, she created a masterpiece that every American should read; for in Antonia is the blood, the spirit, the heart, of this country, built on the hopes and dreams of men and women who sacrificed everything for the promise of a better future.