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Book Review: My Antonia by Willa Cather

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My Antonia by Willa Cather is one of those books I have a hard time reviewing. As I read it I was just swept up in the writing and the story and I really didn’t think about what I might say or write when I was done. I just enjoyed reading it. Since I have allowed several weeks to elapse since I finished it, I feel even less confident I can capture the beauty of this book. Let me venture a short description . . .

The title character is Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant transplanted with her family to frontier Nebraska. The narrator, however, is not Antonia – as evidenced by the “My” of the title – but Jim Burden, a native Virginian sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska when his parents die. The introduction sets up Jim’s reflections on Antonia by having two friends meet on a train and start reminiscing about their childhood in Nebraska. The anonymous author in the introduction asks the adult Jim to write down his memories of Antonia. The rest of the story is his story.

There are two things to note about the book: its wonderful descriptions of the landscape and life on the frontier; and its capturing of the emotions of the characters. Here is an early example of both (Jim is describing his trip from the train to his grandparents farm):

I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down, I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land–slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

You might say that Cather captures the interior and exterior landscapes; the physical and emotional terrain. This allows her to create – or perhaps recreate – a full and believable world. This is one of the gifts of great literature: it allows us to see how others might have lived; to imagine the possibilities and contours of life outside of our own experiences.

I realize there are literary, historical, and even political issues involved (modernism, the idealized frontier, Cather’s suspected lesbianism, etc.) but I really just enjoyed it as a great story written with skill and artistry.

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  • Peg

    This book sucked so badly. I hated it so much. They spent too much time describing the freakin’ corn and hills and whatnot. This book was so boring I nearly committed suicide each time I had to sit down and read it for school. Very bad.

  • Lis

    I love to read just about anything out there. I couldn’t get through the first chapter. Like Peg, I was bored and struggling.

  • Danielle

    this was a really deep book, i wish they would have explained more deeply why jim chose the title “My Antonia” thoght.. its one of my essay qestions. If enyone knows the answer then please Email me.. Dani492@aol.com

  • http://suckit a No ShOw

    this book was one of the most stupid and boring books ever! i hated that book! that book is also one of the most sick and twisted kind of stories i have ever been forced to read in my life, fricken jim was really willa in the book….that is goddam disturbing, i don’t care to hear any of willa’s nasty lesbian fantasies! so, if i were you…..i would spare yourself, do yourself a favor and like don’t ever attempt to even read this book!!!! if you do, you might as well kiss yourself good bye because your soul will go to hell like mine did…you might as well cross your heart and hope to die! btw, willa i have absolutley have no goddam rest for you at all, you are a sick person.

  • anonymous_jak

    this was the absolute shittiest book i have ever read…wtf??? stupid antonia go get slapped yu stupid ho

  • michelle

    i dont think it is that bad and i think the other people saying comments are stupid to say such things

  • Elton John

    I don’t know what you guys are smoking, but I found the novel inspiring. Its a good novel. Thats why its a classic.

  • ThisBookSucked

    Ok, first of all this book is proof that satan still exists in the world today.
    i had to read this book for school and i read the first 5 pages and almost clawed my eyes out after having to read this. Willa is nasty by the way and this is all about her lesbian thoughts. thats messed up on so many levels. if your considering reading this book for any reason… just dont. thats all i can say.

  • Wow

    Wow, back off of the novel people. It is a good book, and even if Willa Cather chose to depict herself as Jim, this is no lesbian fantasy, it is simply her choice for how to make the story more effective and reach the audience she was going for.
    If you are just reading this novel for a class, and hate it because you can’t handle a book where the pictures are created with words and not paints, you really shouldn’t share your opinion on this Classic Novel. Anyone with literary sense would see that this is a wonderful story.

  • http://www.whitesummerdress.com Theresa Taft

    White Summer Dress is a great love story of true love in the hard cold light of day. Read it, it could change your life.

  • FUCK U

    i think the book is stupid..its boring and annoying and i hate it pont blankk..k thanks

  • Jake

    the book sucks like a hooker for $100

  • Anonymous

    I thought this book was very good. I had to read it for summer reading and it was the best book out of all of the books I had to read. Don’t listen to all of the stupid people saying it was bad. They just don’t know what they are talking about and obviously they can’t understand anything. Please read this book, it was VERY good.

  • Drue

    I have to say that i am happy that i’m not the only person who hates this friggen book. It takes about one or two words for me to read before i get soo pissed off that this piece of shit book that i just go absolutely fuckin nuts and bit the shit out of it. Seriously i have about a million bite marks on my my antonia book. o and also i bit out some of the fuckin pages in the back, lmao. I can’t believe my school would be so retarded as to give us such a shitty book to read over the summer. it’s bad e-fuckin-nough that we have to read over the summer, at least give us a book that’s worth wasting my time to read. seriously, they spend wayy too much damn time writing about the fuckin scenery and nonsense shit like that. i could write that whole goddamn book and tell the story in 10 pages. In my opinion (and anyone else who has a life’s opinion), every copy of this book should be friggen burned because it’s just sooo shitty. the auther died fuckin 60 years ago or so and was born during the goddamn cowboy western shoot-out age. That’s just about all i have to say about that book other than if you haven’t read it, DON’T.

  • http://yourmom Fred Ferkendizer

    this book was uggh, i am reading it for an english project. it was pretty gay.

  • Elizabeth

    I didn’t like the book very much. It went into too much detail which lost my focus on what we were talking about. I’m very a.d.d. so it’s hard for me to read a book anyway. All of the detail lost me.

  • Joanne

    Obviously this book is not right for children who can’t focus on a world other than their own. Cather’s writing is crisp and clear and moving, completely pertinent for the time period. She is able to take her childhood memories of frontier Nebraska and weave them into an engrossing story, that feels relevant even now. If you have a hard time reading this book I suggest you never try to read Dickens, Hawthorne, Thoreau, or Melville to name a few. Cather is one of the great American authors, and that is why you have to read her work in school, when it is almost impossible to appreciate it. By the way, many authors occasionally use a change of perspective and write from the standpoint of the opposite sex (Stephen King in Gerald’s Game and Rose Madder).

  • lexisss

    this book was really hard to get into. i am doing an english project on her and most of her novels are very boring.

  • Greg

    Die Antonia. Dieeeee

  • Nikki

    In addition to what Joanne said previously… the people who complained about this book should also refrain from reading Milton, Austen, Hardy, and Steinbeck as well. And even though Conrad, Hemmingway, and Shakespeare are very different, they should probably stay away from those authors too… seeing as books with symbolism and underlying meanings probably are too much for them. Basically, people who can barely sit through picture books or horrible bratty teenager books have no right to comment. The novel was wonderfully executed and also contained a good story. Everyone with whom I’ve spoken about it. who APPRECIATES real literature, thought it was a good book.

    And to those ranting about Cather being a lesbian? Grow up? It was hard enough being a WOMAN writer of the time, let alone a LESBIAN writer. Willa shows tremendous courage through this novel, even if the true meaning was masked by a male character. What does that tell you about the time anyway? That a woman had to paint herself as a man for her book to do well?

  • u have issues

    i read this book for extra credit in english, and i agree completely with everything this review says. the book was beautifully written and i was moved by how much jim loved antonia. i didnt know this was supposed to be some lesbian fantasy, but even if it is true, it is just a story of friendship love. if you cant handle this, you’ll never read anything good

  • distress

    I find it distressing that so many people could not open up their minds to this novel. We are supposed to be the people of the future, the next generation, and if we can not open up our minds and try to read into novels and experience new ideas how are we going to survive in the real world? If you were too ignorant to give this book a chance and read it because you were forced to, hating every page because you might not particularly care about the description of sunset on the prairies of Nebraska, I feel sorry for you. Grow up, and suck it up. you are going to have to read much harder novels in your future, so good luck in college. Also have you considered that maybe Cather wrote from the perspective of a male because that was accepted in the time. Probably not. This was during the time of change for the role of women, any book written from the view point of a male was going to be more comfortable. Males did control the country up until around this time. I suggest you give this book another chance if you are one of the people who hated it. Take your time and think about what you are reading. This book was beautifully written, it should be enjoyed.

  • distress

    I find it distressing that so many people could not open up their minds to this novel. We are supposed to be the people of the future, the next generation, and if we can not open up our minds and try to read into novels and experience new ideas how are we going to survive in the real world? If you were too ignorant to give this book a chance and read it because you were forced to, hating every page because you might not particularly care about the description of sunset on the prairies of Nebraska, I feel sorry for you. Grow up, and suck it up. you are going to have to read much harder novels in your future, so good luck in college. Also have you considered that maybe Cather wrote from the perspective of a male because that was accepted in the time. Probably not. This was during the time of change for the role of women, any book written from the view point of a male was going to be more comfortable. Males did control the country up until around this time. I suggest you give this book another chance if you are one of the people who hated it. Take your time and think about what you are reading. This book was beautifully written, it should be enjoyed.

  • Jane

    Just so everyone knows … Willa Cather was gay. No, really .. she liked vagina.

  • Alex

    This book sucked so bad. No story line whatsoever just a kid running around telling us about his life. We all have lives to, we dont need to read about your stupid life. There was no ultimate goal, no villan, the book SUCKED!

  • Tina

    The lack of a storyline did make the book a little less interesting than i would have liked but altogether it was still a pretty well-written book.
    Not that i would have read it if i had a choice.. (i only read it for an english assignement)

  • jach

    As stated before this book is one of the worst things ever written. The book had no point, it should be given to prisoners on death row. But they might kill themselves in the process of reading it.

  • Really?

    I think everyone who posts shit like “i read the first 5 pages and thought it was shitty” is a total douchebag. The book was alright to be honest. It wasn’t bad,but it wasn’t that good. People who make comments saying the author was a lesbian, it just provokes me to think one of two things. 1. you are a retard. 2. You’re an immature brat who needs to grow up.

  • funny

    hahahahhahahahahahhhahaahah these people hahah

  • :]

    hahahahaha the book was aight and these people hahahaha are stupid but hahaha funny hahahahahaha wooh its a book people get over it

  • Alex Lee

    Ok, so I have to write a summary over this whole book in my english 111 class. Yes, some people say this book is great but the same people that think this book is amazing also like staring at walls and watching paint dry. I can understand the need to use detail but I don’t need to know if a duck is farting 4 miles away. Too much detail to even get past the first chapter without nodding off. If I had a choice to read anything this book is at the end of the list. I don’t have ADHD but this book makes me feel like I do. If the U.S. government wants a new form of torture at GITMO then they should consider having the Iraqis and Afghanis read the intro to My Antonia. They should also give them a butter knife so that when they realize the book is crap they can cut their wrists.

    Thank you for reading
    Alex

  • Overly Critical Man

    I find it distressing that we consider what amounts to a self-insert lesbian fanfic about Nebraska an American “classic.” Cather was a hack and this book was pointless drivel.

  • Why?

    This book…………… is lame.

  • Angelo

    can you please give a gun. most boring book ever fell asleep in class on the second page

  • Dottie McD

    I read this book many years ago, and reread it just now. I love Cather’s descriptions of the country, of nature, of weather, and of the reactions of her characters to the great American midwest landscape. However I felt there was something hollow in the nature of the book- the characters seemed to change from section to section without any true development; and the narrative itself lost power and credibility somewhere along the line. I can’t find any better poetry about nature anywhere than in Cather’s writing in this book; but it is flawed in several ways, some I can’t always define. Overall, it’s not a first rate novel and hasn’t survived the test of time to become a true American classic, because of these flaws.