Introduction: My Antonia by Willa Cather, Review #theclassics
First published in 1918, at the end of the First World War, My Antonia by Willa Cather, tells the story of what life was like in the American West in the 1880s. The language in the novel is very poetic. “The snow did not fall this time, it simply spilled out of heaven like thousands of feather-beds being emptied,” pens Willa Cather who had moved to Nebraska with her parents and siblings in 1883. And through Cather’s words, the reader is able to get a glimpse of the untamed beauty of the Prairies, which was a barely inhabited place.
UPDATE: First Published January 2014
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What is My Antonia by Willa Cather About?
The story is very much about pioneering women, and the strongest characters in the book are women. A central theme is racist attitudes toward immigrants, which is unfortunately still prevalent today. The characters deal with a lot of suffering in the story, and they have to endure extreme winter conditions, and learn to master the land to survive.
The narrator, Jim Burden, a successful New York lawyer, happens to be on the same train as his friend, an unnamed woman, with whom he grew up with in Nebraska. Although they both now live in New York, they do not see much of each other because Jim’s job as legal counsel for one of the railway entails a lot of travel. Additionally, his friend does not like, Genevieve Whitney Burden, Jim’s wife.
While the two friends are reminiscing about growing up in Nebraska, the central figure in their conversation is Antonia Shimerda. The two agree to write down everything they remember about Antonia. Jim is the only one who does his homework, and his manuscript, My Antonia is the fictional memoir.
My Antonia by Willa Cather starts when Jim Burden is 10 years old. Both his parents have just died, and his relatives in Virginia, have sent him off with Jake Marpole – one of their farm hand – to his grandparents, Josiah and Emmaline Burden who live on a farm in Nebraska.
Young Jim is on the same train as the Shimerda family who are immigrants. Throughout the story, you see the social divide between Jim and Antonia, and the divide widens as the two grow older. Jim’s grandparents love him very much, and they teach him values such as generosity, compassion and empathy. Although his grandfather is the strong silent type, he sets a good example for his family to follow, and that is quite evident when there is a rift between the Burdens and the Shimerdas.
Life is especially hard for the Shimerdas. Peter Krajiek cheats the Shimerdas when he sells his farm to them for much more than it is worth. He exploits their inability to speak English. Early in the story, Mr Shimerda is killed, either by suicide or murder. He never wanted to leave his homeland, Bohemia, but was pressured by his wife who believed that a better life in America was awaiting them. He had to leave behind his support network and a vocation that he enjoyed. Mr Shimerda loved his Antonia. Mrs. Shimerda isn’t a likeable character because she is jealous and envious of the Burdens. Her ingratitude is loud and clear in the book.
The female immigrants in the story are hired girls, waitresses, laundresses and dressmakers. Jim escapes the small town of Black Hawk, Nebraska to attend university in Lincoln, and one of his professors, Gaston Cleric, encourages him to transfer to Harvard. Lena Lingard, a Norwegian girl, who he knew in Black Hawk, escapes the farm and the family, and becomes a successful dressmaker in Lincoln.
She reconnects with Jim while she is living in Lincoln and he becomes distracted and neglects his school work, and that’s why Cleric recommends the transfer. Tiny Soderball, who had worked in the hotel in Black Hawk, makes her fortune cooking for prospectors during the Klondike gold rush. Later she invites Lena to join her in San Francisco.
For a very brief time, Antonia escapes the farm, and her taskmaster brother, Ambrosch. She is in love with Larry Donovan, a railway conductor, who deserts her in Denver after he spends all of her money. Antonia returns to the farm where she soon discovers that she is going to be an unwed mother. Despite being pregnant, she continues to farm the land like any man.
Antonia is a strong woman who overcomes adversity after adversity. Despite being scorned by Larry Donovan, Antonia marries Anton Cuzak, a young Bohemian. Twenty-three years have passed when Jim sees Antonia again. Most of her outer beauty has faded because of the hard life of farming, but her inner beauty is stronger than ever. Despite her many children, and no excess money, Antonia is very happy and contented with her life because she loves and is loved. She finally triumphs over the difficult land to produce a fruit farm. After seeing the interaction between Antonia and her family, Jim makes the decision to visit more often. And the reader is reminded that success is never just about money!
At the end of My Antonia by Willa Cather, the reader will feel like the story is incomplete, and that’s deliberate. The unnamed female friend we meet, who recommends that they both write down all they know about Antonia points out, “As for Jim, no disappointments have been severe enough to chill his naturally romantic and ardent disposition,” therefore you know that his point of view is not totally reliable and is somewhat skewed. And that’s okay as well, because the author has done her job, and we still get to see what life was like in the America West during the 1880s.
Final Thoughts: My Antonia by Willa Cather
For those who are interested in history, you will enjoy My Antonia by Willa Cather.
My Ántonia (Dover Thrift Editions)The Prairie Trilogy: O Pioneers!; The Song of the Lark; My AntoniáDeath Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics)The Professor’s House: (Annotated)The Willa Cather Collection: 40 Classic WorksOne Of OursThe Song of the Lark (Dover Thrift Editions)Shadows on the Rock (Vintage Classics)A Lost Lady (Vintage Classics)