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.