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My Ántonia by Willa Cather

December 22, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918) French title: Mon Ántonia

 As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

Cather_AntoniaThis is Jim Burden’s first impression of Nebraska in the early 1880s. Jim is ten, his parents are dead and he was sent from Virginia to his grand-parents’ farm in Nebraska. He arrives by train at the same time as the Shimerdas who arrive directly from Bohemia. The Shimerdas settle in a farm not far from Jim’s grandparents’ and Jim befriends with Ántonia, the eldest daughter. She’s fourteen.

In My Ántonia, Jim relates his relationship with Ántonia. My Ántonia doesn’t mean Ántonia is mine but This is my perception of Ántonia. Jim recalls his first eighteen months on the farm, the first brutal winter he and the Shimerdas spent in Nebraska. His family helped the newcomers as well as they could but Mr Shimerda was more a literate fiddle player than a farmer. The move from Europe was initiated by his wife and he never recovered from it. Jim teaches English to Ántonia and her sister because almost nobody speaks their language. The beauty of that first part is in the description of nature…

JULY CAME ON with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day. The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather’s to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas’ cornfields, or Mr. Bushy’s, but the world’s cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war.

and in the description of hard life in a new country.

After that, Jim’s grandparents decided to move to the nearest city, Black Hawk, because they were getting old for farming and also wanted Jim to attend school. The next part of the novel is dedicated to these years of his life, also filled with Ántonia as she came to town too. She became the hired help of Jim’s neighbours. And at last, Willa Cather came out of nostalgic recollection to offer a bit of social analysis of life in Black Hawk:

THERE WAS A CURIOUS social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school. 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 Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

That was my favourite part of the novel. I craved for more insight on the workings of the society there. How do you create brand new towns in the middle of nowhere? This passage describes the difference between the American settlers (people coming from the East to settle in Black Hawk) and immigrants. The American girls seem lifeless to Jim because they are not allowed to go out much. In winter, it’s too cold. In the summer, it’s too hot. They are educated like European girls in a book by Gissing: they’re too high on the social ladder to work, even if poverty lurks. The only acceptable job would be to become a teacher.

Then we follow Jim to college in Lincoln (founded in 1856). It’s a rather new university, established in 1869 and Jim says:

Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavour, of expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its head from the prairie only a few years before.

It is hard to imagine, isn’t it? Especially when you live in Europe.

He doesn’t study in Lincoln very long. After a year, he joins Harvard and stays on the East Coast. He comes back once in Nebraska to see Ántonia and know what has become of her.

My Ántonia is based upon Willa Cather’s experience. She moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was nine, then moved to a city called Red Cloud, went to the University of Nebraska and then lived in Pittsburg and New York. Jim is following the same path.

I thought My Ántonia was a nice book but it lacks the depth needed to be a great book. It’s lovely to read about the prairie, the early settlers and everyday life in Nebraska at the time. But I would have liked a bit more of analysis of the living conditions, the political context, the integration of new migrants, the rules for agriculture, the economy and all. It lacked of historical content. Jim is an adult recollecting his youth, it was easy to insert insight and analysis in his memories. Willa Cather didn’t do it and it weakens her novel. However, it is an easy and pleasant read that can be pushed towards teens.

PS: I got a French copy at Christmas last year but I found a free English copy on my ebook so I read it in English.

  1. December 23, 2014 at 7:50 am

    My guess, and I have not read this novel although I obviously should, is that the kind of context you are looking for is missing because Cather is attempting to create something more mythic or primal. I am not saying that she succeeded. There was some of the same thing in O Pioneers!, some literal intrusions of Greek myths, kind of hidden but there. We were discussing this just a little while ago, weren’t we?

    Hey, wait, it is right there in that first passage you quote – the “wine-dark sea” from The Odyssey.

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    • December 23, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      I agree with you but the mythic and primal was not enough for me. It made me think of The Little House on the Prairie, even if I haven’t read it. It’s simple and descriptive.
      If there are Greek myths in here, I haven’t seen them.

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  2. December 23, 2014 at 10:35 am

    I haven’t read Willa Cather, but her name has cropped up a lot this year and My Antonia is sitting on one of my wishlists. (I very nearly bought it after seeing it in the staff picks at Foyles, London.) I can see what you mean about the social context of the time. I was struck by your third quote and the contrast between the older children and their younger brothers and sisters, how their lives might differ based on their education and experiences.

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    • December 23, 2014 at 6:59 pm

      This quote about the oldest daughters is interesting. Willa Cather says they brought prosperity to their families because their money helped buying farming tools. It accelerated the transformation of the farms, helped increase the culture and make of them profitable properties.

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  3. December 23, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Interesting review Emma. I really like this book, and have in fact read it twice. I’ve read quite a bit of Cather, but I haven’t read the other two in her pioneers series, which is something I want to do. I like the language in this one, and I like the sense that Jim has never moved on from his fascination of, and love for Ántonia. She moves on with her life, but he seems more stuck (as I recollect). I think Tom is right. Cather’s aim is more mythic and primal. It’s not meant to be social history. It’s about emotions stripped bare in such a stark environment.

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    • December 23, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      It’s well-written, the descriptions of the landscapes are marvellous.

      You’re right, we know nothing about Jim as an adult. From his descriptions of girls in Black Hawk, he seemed to find them a bit tasteless compared to the immigrant girls. Ántonia is one of them. They had a different education, a different vision of life and they didn’t act the same way as American girls.

      Perhaps he failed to meet a woman who could bring him that liveliness.

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      • December 23, 2014 at 11:03 pm

        Yes, for whatever reason, he is lost in the past, in longing for a different life/world.

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  4. December 23, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    I found your conclusions interesting, as I was getting an easy and pleasant but perhaps not probing vibe from your description. The descriptions sound marvellous, but like you I think I’d want more analysis,

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    • December 23, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      There’s too much nostalgia for my taste. I prefer novels like The Grapes of Wrath.

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  5. December 23, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    I’ve got a real soft spot for “Mon Antonia” (I’ve got the French 10/18 edition). I haven’t read it in a long time and if I were to re-read it now I might also feel more curious about their living and social circumstances. Still, as I remember the book, the descriptions of the countryside, of a land changing fast with the arrival of all these immigrants, were enough to satisfy my imagination.
    I can’t remember whether I ever advised you to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair?

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    • December 24, 2014 at 11:47 am

      I guess I would have had the same reaction if I had read it earlier. I expect more now. One of my flaws is that I can’t read non-fiction. After a few pages, words start dancing on the page and my mind wanders. So I rely on fiction to learn things.

      I found fascinating that Jim could attend so many theatre plays in Lincoln. Shows came that far and it must have been tough on the actors and the troupe in general.

      I’ll have a look at The Jungle.

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  6. December 24, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Well you’re right about it being pushed towards teens. It seems to be high school read frequently.

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    • December 24, 2014 at 11:54 am

      I’m not surprised it is on reading list in high schools. It’s a good pick, to be honest. Non readers can easily read it and it’s interesting for teenagers.

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  7. December 30, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    This was the year I finally wanted to read Willa Cather. Heavenali just hosted a Willa Cather week. Since I’m a sucker for nature descriptions I might like it more than you. It’s a good question – how do you build towns out of nothing. Danille reviewed The Professor’s House and it sounded like it might be one of her best. I’d like to read this one too but I’ll ry to not expect too much.

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    • December 30, 2014 at 10:47 pm

      I think Death Comes for the Archbishop is one of her bests. I wasn’t interested in the theme, that’s why I didn’t pick it. (although I’d like to read a novel set in Santa Fe)

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      • January 6, 2015 at 10:08 pm

        I’ve read Death comes for the Archbishop and The professor’s house, as well as My Ántonia. I like them all but I think the first and last are more intense, have a more “mythical” tone, though perhaps The professor’s house is the easiest to relate to.

        After visiting Santa Fe one New Year period – stunningly beautiful place – I HAD to read Death….

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        • January 8, 2015 at 11:01 pm

          I’ve been to Santa Fe too and that’s why I’m tempted to read the book. The only thing that keeps me from doing it is the Archbishop theme. I’m not sure I will like it. Oh well, I can always abandon the book.

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          • January 9, 2015 at 12:43 am

            Oh, I think the Archbishop is the subject/the character not the theme Emma – if that makes sense.

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  1. December 28, 2014 at 12:11 am
  2. June 28, 2016 at 8:09 am

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