Cather, Willa, Literary Fiction

Review of My Antonia by Willa Cather

What was it about?

After losing both his parents, ten year old James (Jim) Burden relocates to Black Hawk, Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There, he meets families from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia who have come to the American frontiers in search of a future. The Shimerdas are one such family. They are Bohemian immigrants who try to eke out a living in the harsh and unforgiving Nebraska Prairie. My Antonia by Willa Cather is the coming-of-age story of Antonia Shimerda. Her friendship as well as her personal trials and triumphs put Jim’s life into perspective.

What did I think of it?

It is difficult to give an introduction to My Antonia because the book is basically a series of anecdotes from Jim and Antonia’s lives. It is lyrically beautiful but brutally realistic about the immigrant experience on the American frontier. Cather’s work reminds me of the 1857 oil painting by Jean Francois Millet called The Gleaners. The harshness of peasant life takes center stage in an otherwise picturesque landscape. But unlike the peasants in The Gleaners painting, Antonia, her family, and friends are not static, archetypal figures. They all start in the same place, but they do not all end up occupying the same positions in life. Chance and perseverance shape the sort of people that they become. Jim learns to see the frontier through the eyes of an immigrant. As in all of Willa Cather’s novels, the characters are fully fleshed-out people; not one is a throwaway. If you have never read anything by Cather, I definitely suggest you start with My Antonia (or Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I reviewed last year).

Favorite Quote

[At the grave of Mr. Shimerda (Antonia’s father who committed suicide)]:

“Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence—the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.”

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