My Antonia by Willa Cather

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.

About these ads

52 comments

  1. I am currently reading this book – I am really enjoying it i am nearly 3/4 through and Antonia is an amazing character :)

  2. What a lovely post, Rachel. I have been wanting to read My Antonia for a while but am going to do so immediately…thanks once again, Rachel.

  3. Durn it! I had decided to read South Riding next (just finishing off ‘Spiderweb’ by Penelope Lively. Do you read her books? If not, do try them!) because there’s going to be a TV adaptation on soon, but now I HAVE to return to ‘My Antonia’. Your review is so enticing!

    The book has been on my TBR shelves for ages and the other day my son, when talking about the new girlfriend (Antonia) of a (female) friend we have in common, called her ‘HER Antonia!’ How we chuckled! :) (And then, of course, I told him that the Antonia of the book pronounced her name differently.)

    1. Yes, Penny, you bring back a high school memory. I remember one of my English teachers being very insistent about how to pronounce the character’s name: An-ton-ee-a.

      1. I read “My Antonia” every few years. And every few years I struggle with the pronunciation of “Antonia.” The book has a footnote as to the pronunciation, but I don’t know whether it is Willa Cather’s footnote or an editor’s. In either case, it is not entirely helpful. I’ve found a dozen google sites offering varying pronunciations, none seem definitive, and they are often contradictory.

        Perhaps this is unknowable, but I WANT TO KNOW!

    2. Well you can speed through My Antonia and then read South Riding, Penny! I am excited for the South Riding adaptation though I am not going to watch it until I’ve read the book, of course.

      Ha! Yes, the pronunication has rather eluded me – in my mind she was just Antonia as we would say in England…I gave up trying to figure it out!

      1. Yes, My Antonia’s quite a short book… OK, it’s a deal!

        I still struggle with pronouncing it Bohemian-style, but, being a terrible pedant, I struggle on… :)

  4. Oh, breathtaking review of a novel that I hold so dearly to my heart! I try so desperately to convey that type of passion to my students as they read this piece of literature. Your words chime with my thoughts on the novel. My Antonia is definitely a piece of literature that resonates so strongly to the reader over time. I wish more Americans would read it, digest it, and see just how important it was for those pioneers/immigrants to come here and establish life so different from what it held in their native land or from what so limited them on the east coast.

    I might actually share this post with my students, if you don’t mind! To have a modern British perspective, at an adult level other than their teacher’s, may be enlightening to my students. Thanks, Rachel!

    1. Thank you Christine! I think it is such a passionate book, about America and what it is to be American, and perhaps there would be more appreciation and tolerance of immigrants today if modern day Americans could read this and be reminded of who this country really owes its debt of gratitude to.

      Of course I don’t mind! What an honour! And I’m so glad you get to teach this book – what a wonderful novel to share and explore!

  5. What a great review. This one has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a while — time to move it to a shorter queue! :) Thanks for sharing with us.

  6. “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.” I can’t think of a better way to describe “My Antonia”, or the American spirit, Rachel. I so love being able to see this all through your eyes. Thank you.

    The picture is iconic of the hard work, the toil, on the homesteads of the prairie. This woman is, if I am not mistaken, hauling was was called buffalo chips, no doubt to use to warm the fire.

    1. Thank you Penny! You are so lovely!

      Isn’t is a great picture? Yes they are buffalo chips. Such backbreaking work, and such a smile, nontheless! I am just in awe of these amazing people.

  7. Right, that does it. WC comes to the top, or near top, of the TBR pile.

    I wonder, as a Brit, posting on a kind of Brit blog (the lovely R), if our US buddies would care to comment on the “spirit” conveyed by WC (its in Steinbeck too), and how and to what extent it may underlie the US psyche.

    Is it a forgotten myth, the prairie settlers, and all that stuff, carving out what eventually became the mighty though perhaps not unitary US of A? Or does it still resonate in y’all, home from a busy NYC day, sometimes, after chilling with a Bud and a few hours’ peace, gazing out across a now muted NYC skyline in the dusk – thinking “yep, that’s where all this started”, and such.

    I confess for example to very strong “Brit psyche” feelings on matters of The Churchill Spirit – you know the one I mean – which I personally felt in sympathetic hurt and outrage when y’all lost those towers and the men and women therein (though let’s not dwell on that?).

    While not a cricket fan, I’ve got a copy of Netherland and I’m pleasurably anticipating how this gentle British game might serve as a symbol for psychological outlook: what is fair, what the acceptable rules are, and how warm and unpalatable the following beer might be. Not sure if O’Neill even uses it that way; but it has such a potential.

    I digress. Let me not distract from the lovely flow R always promotes…and WC is now more elevated on the pile based on her enthusiasm.

    “But amongst these lands and amongst these peoples, flowers blossom”

    - wonderful.

    1. Hi Bop! Glad to hear My Antonia is winging its way to the top of the TBR pile!

      I’m not sure if Americans would think about this often…there is a strong sense of patriotism here, but whether that ties into a shared pioneer background or not, I don’t know. I think the British sense of patriotism only comes out when triggered by events like terrorist attacks or war memorials and things, whereas here it’s constant- everyone has a flag on their homes, kids pledge allegiance to the flag, etc.

      Glad you enjoyed the review! And thanks for an entertaining comment!

      1. Bop, you make very interesting comments. With most Americans living in cities or suburbs today, we don’t have to deal with harsh conditions on a regular basis. Some still do farm, but I’m not sure that modern farms compare in any way, shape, or form to the kinds of conditions pioneers like Antonia had to face. At the same time, I think the pioneer spirit is a part of the American myth and psyche and contributes to American optimism. Like Rachel said, pioneers like Antonia worked hard and made it, and Americans generally have a sense that, if you work hard enough, you, too, can make it. And I think Mumsy’s comment further down is great on this subject.

      2. I must confess.

        I’m about halfway through dear R, and running out of steam. I’d like to know if there’s any drama to entice me bravely onwards, because otherwise I may not bother.

        It’s nicely crafted, and I don’t necessarily want passion, fights and massive dilemma in a book, or similar; but the characters are I think painted a little thinly to sustain interest on that basis alone.

        I confess.

        I picked up some Hemingway for some narrative vitamins, some hard hitting minerals, and some sustaining trace elements.

        Do I plough on, dear R?? do I??

        I’m in your hands,
        Bop.

      3. Oh Bop! I’m afraid it goes on much the same – no drama! But just lovely, beautiful depictions of life and the different roads we can take.

        I don’t think Cather is for everyone – she doesn’t write page turners in the traditional sense, that’s for sure. But DO keep ploughing on and see what you think when you finish – it’s not very long and it WILL be worth it. The writing is so beautiful that it’s worth hanging on for that at least!

  8. Rachel! You are making it very difficult for me to maintain my anti-Willa-Cather bias, which I have maintained intact since high school. She would not take a stand against censorship so I swore her off for life. I swear authors off for life all the time in order to simplify my life but then reviews like this come along and I have to reconsider.

    1. Oh Jenny! You have to forgive her and give her a try! She is totally worth it! I demand that you give her another chance…I will give you O, Pioneers so if you don’t like her at least it’s short and you won’t have to dislike her for long.

  9. That was a wonderful review of a great book. Just prior to reading My Antonia, I read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, so thoughout My Antonia I couldn’t help thinking of what was coming for her and her family!
    My sil’s grandparents grew up on the Nebaska prairie and the book really has had a lot of meaning for myself!

    1. Yes, I think it’s important to remember that one of the many reasons life was so desperately hard for pioneer farmers on the prairie was that the prairie wasn’t really suited from an ecological point for farming. So the on-going farming removed much of the top soil, which then led to massive dust storms and the dust bowl within 50 years of the time the fictional Antonia was living.

      1. A character in Robertson Davies’s wonderful A MIXTURE OF FRAILTIES talks about a (fictional) book called THE PLAINS THAT BROKE THE PLOW.

    2. Thank you! That book sounds interesting – I shall have to look it up! How wonderful to have family history from this period. I’d love to be able to speak to someone who lived through it and hear their stories.

  10. Rachel, this made me think of an earlier post where you talked about the American habit of viewing themselves as Irish, Italian, or Polish, when in face they are (and know they are) American. Here’s what I think: I think family forebears like Antonia have become totem figures for many American families – these daring, courageous, invincible men and women inform our identities in ways we find hard to articulate. So, maybe: when I say I am Irish, I am not saying I am not American – rather, I am linking myself to that very gutsy great-grandparent who traveled steerage, got here sick and broke, carried a misspelled name away from Ellis Island, and brought up six kids in a strange land; it is shorthand for “I may be a weaker version, but I have this blood in my veins.” And having that kind of blood in my veins is what makes me truly American. Or something along those lines?

    Great review. I may have to finally read this-I’ve put it off too long.

    1. Mumsy what great insight you have! That is a wonderful answer and I think you are exactly right – the pioneer spirit lives on in the pride modern day Americans have in their ancestry and what their forebears sacrificed to give them the life they have today.

      I hope you read it soon!

  11. Thank you for the beautiful review, Rachel. I read My Antonia when I was a teenager, and my recent reads of other Cather novels and your review have tempted me to pick it up again. Your comments about the bravery of the immigrants makes me so grateful for what we have today. I’ve moved around a lot and even moved to Belgium at one point, and I can’t imagine any of these experiences without the ability to easily communicate with my family and friends. Plus, I didn’t have to deal with harsh conditions and a complete lack of knowledge of what I was doing. My Antonia sounds like an inspiring read.

    1. You are welcome, Virginia! I think this would be well deserving of a reread. I am so enjoying reading my way through Cather and seeing America and Americans through her eyes. Yes – having moved to America myself, the thought of being here without skype and mobile phones and email would make homesickness unbearable. Such bravery and strength these pioneers had!

  12. Rachel, I love your enthusiasm for this book. The only character I couldn’t stand was Antonia’s mother, but you had to feel sorry for the poor woman. A friend of mine has a theory that the surname ‘Shimerda’ is word play for ‘she murder’ which sheds a whole new light on the suicide of Antonia’s father.

    1. That’s not outside the realm of possibility. One of Cather’s short stories is called “Mr. Rosicky,” about a wonderful man who became a father late in life and is now dying: Rosicky–i.e., the rose is sick.

      1. Thanks for that information, Deb – I’m sure Cather invested some meaning in the names she chose. I really like this interpretation of Shimerda.

    2. Thank you, Nicola. I agree – I found her very difficult to have sympathy for, and I love that interpretation of the surname – intriguing, and makes a lot of sense. It was she who was the driving force in making the family move to America, after all…

  13. I have never been out west but have heard about the flatness of the plains. That photo really paints a picture doesn’t it…it’s absolutely flat! There is nothing as far as the eye can see! Imagine being in a snowstorm, the wind gathering speed and your little house being rocked throughout the night!

    So glad that you’re enjoying these books so much, Rachel, and discovering new authors to hold close to your heart is a wonderful thing.

    1. I know! I really want to go out there and see them for myself! I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been in the middle of nowhere in those storms….such bravery!

      Thank you Darlene…it really is! Willa Cather is such a wonderful writer…if only she was English, you would love her!

  14. My great-great aunt’s name is Antonia, and a Bohemian Immigrant come to Nebraska. I’m going to read the book to find out if it’s the same person. This is interesting to come up upon, thanks for the book idea!

      1. Cather is so cogent in her descriptions of the Nebraska prairie, in My Antonia. I have a special affection for My Mortal Enemy, a novel wholly different from Jim’s Antonia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s