Title: My Antonia
Author: Willa Cather
Summary: The story of Antonia Shimerda is told by one of her friends from childhood, Jim Burden, an orphaned boy from Virginia. Though he leaves the prairie, Jim never forgets the Bohemian girl who so profoundly influenced his life. An immigrant child of immigrant parents, Antonia’s girlhood is spent working to help her parents wrest a living from the untamed land. Though in later years she suffers betrayal and desertion, through all the hardships of her life she preserves a valor of spirit that no hardship can daunt or break. When Jim Burden sees her again after many years, he finds her “a rich mine of life”, a figure who has turned adversity into a particular kind of triumph in the true spirit of the pioneer. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I read this book as part of Books and Movies’ 2013 “I’ve Always Meant to Read That Book” Challenge, which I am unofficially participating in. This is the first Willa Cather book I’ve read, although I’ve had her book O Pioneer’s! on my to-read-list for a while. I hadn’t realized this at the time but they make up her ‘Great Plains’ trilogy, with O Pioneers! being first, followed by The Song of the Lark, and ending with My Antonia.
This book is usually considered Cather’s finest work and after reading I can see why. The writing itself is gorgeous; the descriptions of the weather, land, and people were wonderful. The novel has an extraordinary sense of place which is one of its strongest points. The people were also finely detailed and came across as very ‘alive,’ particularly Mr. Shimerda, who was my favorite. I really felt for him, for his situation, and his fate.
I read the forward before actually reading the book itself and so I was spoiled for most of the main plot points. However, I’m glad I did because I think it enriched my reading as to what Cather wished to convey with the book. Although the book is told through Jim Burden’s eyes, the central heroine of the book is Antonia, a character who for Jim and for Cather represents the physical embodiment of the pioneer spirit during this era. Her life mirrors the lives of countless pioneers during this time. In spite of this, however, she is always held at a distance by both Jim and by Cather. She is an object from a far, met to be admired but never touched. Indeed, this is exactly what Cather says of Antonia in a quote in the forward. (I’ve already returned this book to the library so I’m afraid I can’t give you the exact quote or the name of the author who wrote the forward.)
My favorite parts of the book were when Jim lived with his grandparents out on the farm and then moved to town. As the story progressed and Jim grew up the writing was just as wonderful but I began to lose interest a bit. I wanted to know more about Antonia, to experience the story from her point of view, and to actually read about what happened to her in regards to her engagement and what transpired instead of just hearing about it form Widow Steavens. But with the distance that Cather places Antonia from the reader this simply ins’t possible. When I finished the book I almost felt as if Antonia was not a character in the story but a symbol, devoid of personality and human feelings or experience, a monolith to the pioneer experience. I think this may have been close to what Cather wanted to convey, so even though I didn’t accomplish viewing Antonia on a human level as I wanted to, I’m not t0o disappointed, although while I was reading I was a bit frustrated. The forward stated that the story is more life vignettes then a typical novel with plot. In fact, besides tracing the course of Jim Burden’s life, there really is no plot at all. However I think this works well for the strong sense of place, which Cather makes an principal part of the novel. Overall my only complaint is that, besides not getting Antonia’s side of the story, Jim Burden’s life is pretty non-eventful, as I expect most lives are. But even though nothing particularly exciting or dramatic happens over the course of the book this ‘non-eventfulness’ works well for this type of writing because it allows the sense of place to really shine, almost as if it were a character unto itself. I’m happy to have read this novel, the first of Cather’s that I’ve read. Although I have been planning to read O Pioneers! for a while, I doubt these two will be the only Cather books I read in the future. The thing I’m most upset about in regards to this book is that I’m starting Cather’s Great Plains Trilogy at the end!
In other news:
Last book read: My Antonia by Willa Cather
Currently Reading: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport