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My Ántonia by Willa Cather

December 22, 2014 22 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.

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