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My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia (1918)

by Willa Cather

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Prairie Trilogy (3)

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Published in 1918, “My Antonia,” written by Willa Cather, focuses primarily on the lives of two characters: the narrator, Jimmy Burden, and his childhood friend and neighbor, Antonia Shimerdas. The strength of the novel, I believe, is its message that circumstance and absence or presence of strong character affect substantially the direction of a person’s life.

Spanning approximately 30 years, the novel opens with Jimmy, aged ten, being transported from Virginia to the farm village of Black Hawk, Nebraska, at an unspecified year in the late 1800s. His parents have died. He is to live with his father’s mother and her husband on a farm 20 miles from town in the only wooden house on the rugged, undeveloped plain. Other farm residences are sod houses and dugouts. Aboard the train transporting Jimmy is an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, from Bohemia. Their destination is land next to Jimmy’s grandparents’ property. The Shimerdas’s residence is little more than a cave. Close to arriving at his grandparents’ house, Jimmy reflects: “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.”

Jimmy is fortunate. His grandparents are of strong character. Both are wise about people. Both are empathetic. Jimmy has a secure foundation that permits him to develop with little handicap. The Shimerdas family is not fortunate. They do not speak English; they have been swindled in their purchase of their property; two of their family members are flawed individuals. Mrs. Shimerdas has forced her cultured husband to bring the family to America because “America big country; much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.” She is a complaining woman who feels entitled to receive, even demand the assistance of others. She is fortunate that Jimmy’s grandparents are compassionate people. The grandmother comments, following one of Mrs. Shimerdas’s discontented visits, “No, I wouldn’t mourn if she never came again. But, you see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in ‘em. It makes a woman grasping to see her children want for things.” The other flawed family member is Antonia’s older brother Ambrosch, to whom Mrs. Shimerdas and Antonia defer, “though he was often surly with them and contemptuous toward his father.” Twice during Antonia’s reversals of fortune after she is no longer a child – her father is deceased – Ambrosch utilizes her as the farm’s sole laborer rather than hire help. Later, he hires her out to work for other farmers. When she works as a housekeeper in town (arranged by Jimmy’s grandmother), he takes her wages.

Nearly four years older than Jimmy, Antonia has great potential. She is intelligent, perceptive, hard-working, and kind-hearted. She possesses a natural spark that attraacts good and bad people to her. Jimmy is captivated by her, as a young boy and as a maturing young man. Late in the book he tells her, “The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” “You’re here,” she responds, in her memory and heart, “like my father. So I won’t be lonesome.” Their enduring friendship is extremely beneficial to both.

Unlike Jimmy’s favorable circumstances, Antonia must suffer being raised by a dysfunctional mother and selfish brother. Family poverty does not permit her to attend school. She is judged unfairly by prejudicial townspeople concerned about the morals of immigrant daughters hired to work in town. Male admirers attempt to take advantage of her. Her strength of character enables her to persevere and ultimately prevail.

I appreciated this novel additionally for its historical content. The author knows her material.

First, there is the description, providing a genuine sense of place. Upon seeing it for the first time Jimmy “felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. The there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” And, later, “The road ran about like a wild thing, avoiding the deep draws, crossing them where they were wide and shallow. And all along it, wherever it looped or ran, the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms. They made a gold ribbon across the prairie. Occasionally one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time to his bites as he ate down toward them.”

The author knows also small-town prejudices. Most of the early farmers during Jimmy’s early years living on his grandparents’ farm and later in their house in town were immigrants. “If I told my classmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreign people were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia’s father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all ‘hired girls.’”

Willa Cather tells us that, because of the extensive manual labor they had performed on their parents’ farms, the “hired girls” were far healthier than the town girls and, therefore, more attractive. They were also more natural in expressing their appreciation of simple pleasures, such as their enjoyment of dances and picnics. This behavior led mothers in the town to consider them not only ignorant but immoral. While Antonia was working in town for the family next door to Jimmy’s grandparents’ house, she reveled in the enjoyment of dancing at the local fire hall. This led to considerable town criticism, which, in turn, led to her eventual dismissal. Again, the importance of a person’s circumstance. Because Jimmy had lived near these immigrant daughters, he knew them well enough not to fall into the trap of conventional prejudice. If fact, he deliberately sought their company, shunning the attention of town girls his age. This behavior led to townspeople being critical of him. His liberal-minded grandmother tells him, eventually: “People say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain’t just to us.”

Another nugget of information that the author provides is that the “hired girls” sent their town earnings back to their parents to help them keep and develop their farms. Consequently, the foreign farmers “were the first to become prosperous. After the fathers were out of debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbors – usually of like nationality, -- and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.”

A third reason for my appreciation of this book is that the author presents well-defined secondary characters. For instance, two very likable hired hands employed by Jimmy’s grandparents leave for the West when the family moves into town. They are never heard from again. The money-lender of the town, a despicable person, is married to a shrew of a wife whose face makes babies cry. They stay together because they enjoy too much their nasty arguments. Lena Lingard, one of Antonia’s “hired girls” friends, becomes a skilled dress-maker. She starts a business in Lincoln, where Jimmy attends the University; they become warm-hearted friend. Sometime after he graduates, she moves to San Francisco to become an even more successful business woman.

My Antonia is not the type of novel that modern readers are accustomed to reading. Conflict does not leap out at you from nearly every page. It has more the pace of actual life. Minor problems come and go. We get to glimpse the lives of a variety of people in addition to those of Jimmy and Antonia. Our understanding of what advances or retards a person’s progress and self-satisfaction in life is reinforced. My enjoyment of this book crept up on me. I see why it is considered a well-regarded early American historical novel. ( )
  HaroldTitus | Nov 9, 2015 |
A pretty entertaining book.
I liked Willa Cather's way with words, by which she described the scenes.. and emotions involved on those scenes. ( )
  smiley0905 | Sep 3, 2015 |
[My Antonia] by Willa Cather and [Beloved] by Toni Morrison

Life is filled with remembrance, honeyed with nostalgia or seasoned with sour regret. Some of the best books tap into the yen to look back at a time that has lost reality’s sharp edges, glowing in our collective memory as a better or simpler time. Others seek to shine hindsight’s harsh light, to expose any such wistful longing as a distorting toxin. The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere between.

A bunny cake, with coconut frosting is my earliest memory. I was obsessed with Bugs Bunny; his silly antics struck a cord with my as yet undeveloped brain. There was something special about that crazy animal, able to outwit man and beast alike yet still humble enough to not take himself too seriously. Believing she could work any miracle, in the kitchen or beyond, I begged for a Bugs Bunny cake, with coconut frosting, of course. These were the days before many specialty bakeries existed, before the country developed a sense of entitlement to purchase anything that could be imagined, when little boy’s dreams depended on a mother’s ingenuity and devotion. Baking a cake in such an unusual and intricate shape didn’t seem like too much to ask. He was a famous and heroic figure, after all – there must be cakes made in his likeness. Like all things I asked my mother to produce, the bunny cake appeared, furry with coconut and complete with black whiskers. I’m told that I can’t remember this event, as it was my second birthday, that I must have seen a picture that I’ve confused as a memory. But no one can produce the picture, and I remember the candlelight dancing across that bunny’s coconut fur. That event stands in my memory like a baptism of sorts, initiating me into the faith that my mother could do anything – she need only be asked. Of course, in later years, apostasy arrived with a teenaged fury. But like all prodigals, I returned as I grew to respect the love and devotion that produced the miracles of my youth – the middle ground between nostalgia and reality’s harsh light.

Willa Cather’s elegiac [My Antonia] is hazy with honeyed nostalgia. It is a book sitting atop a small rise in the plains and looking back over what has become of a way of life, of a place and people deeply rooted in the soil watching as the world careens off in a different direction. There is a truth to the remembrance, to freezing a place’s sensations in amber to look back on as encouragement against tomorrow’s severity. And that’s what [My Antonia] is about: Jim Burden, unhappy with his job’s mundanity, looking back on his childhood hero and love, Antonia. Her wildness, her steely determination, her beauty; all things that he associates with the vast prairie where they lived and things he longs for in his adult life. Listen to Willa as Jim remembers evenings with Antonia:
“All those afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prarie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero’s death – heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.”
As beautiful as Jim’s memory is, it is tainted by the place from where he views it all, as you can see in the next paragraph:
“How many an afternoon Antonia and I have trailed along the prarie under that magnificence! And always two long black shadows flitted before us or followed after, dark spots on the ruddy grass.”
Those shadows that were sometimes ahead and sometimes chasing them are the events that cast them away from youth’s simple and enveloping beauty. It is these shadows that Jim speaks from as a man, longing for the childhood’s lost rays. They are the shadows from which I see the candlelight dancing on a cake in the shape of a bunny.

On the other hand, for the characters in Toni Morrison’s [Beloved], “Remembering seemed unwise.” Rather than looking back into soft amber light, Morrison’s characters speak from the shadows into darkness. Indeed, the fowl past is embodied in a specter that has seized flesh and blood to haunt Sethe and her daughter Denver. Having killed her infant rather than see it be enslaved, the child first haunts her home as a poltergeist, and then, when a threatening force arrives in Paul D, an old friend, the ghost takes on human form, pulling Sethe and Denver into an obsessive spiral. Though Beloved is the impetus for the plot, the story is really how Sethe and Paul D arrived at this point in their lives, how they survived brutal conditions to see freedom and how the choices that led to their freedom haunt their souls. Looking back for these two is to look into an abyss. And yet at the end of the book, Paul D rescues Sethe from a suicidal malaise, remembering what another of their friends said about the love of his life:
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
Even from the darkness, Paul D sees a faint light in the past, a salvation in his memory. That’s that candlelight I see dancing on a bunny’s coconut fur in my memory.

There are few books more beautifully written than [My Antonia] and few books more stark and difficult than [Beloved]. But they both stand for what remembrance holds, whether dark or amber, and that in the light of either, hope glimmers.

Bottom Line: The light and dark of memory.

4 bones!!!!! ( )
3 vote blackdogbooks | Aug 2, 2015 |
A superb depiction of place (Nebraska), time (1880's to 1910's), and people. The book creates an atmosphere the reader can sink into. ( )
  snash | Jul 29, 2015 |
As a young orphan, Jim Burden travels by train to his grandparents home in Nebraska, where he meets the lovely Antonia. Their friendship becomes a close one that lasts a lifetime. The story is told through Jim's reminiscences. Willa Cather's story telling is easy and picturesque, and her characters are recognizable.

December 2014 ( )
  NanaCC | Jul 26, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (36 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Benda, W. T.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Byatt, A.S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Colacci, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Norris, KathleenForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Optima dies . . . prima fugit
To Carrie and Irene Miner in memory of affections old and true.
First words
I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I traveled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the “hands” on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake’s experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.
"When a writer begins to work with his own material," said Willa Cather, in a retrospective preface to her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, "he has less and less choice about the moulding of it. (Preface)
He placed this book in my grandmother's hands, looked at her entreatingly, and said, with an earnestness which I shall never forget, "Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Ántonia!"
Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use.
Lena was Pussy so often that she finally said she wouldn't play any more.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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My Ántonia chronicles the life of Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant woman, as seen through the eyes of Jim, the man unable to forget her. Jim, now a successful New York lawyer, recollects his upbringing on a Nebraska farm. Even after 20 years, Ántonia continues to live a romantic life in his imagination. When he returns to Nebraska, he finds Ántonia has lived a battered life. Although the man to whom she dedicated her life abandons her, she remains strong and full of courage.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 039575514X, Paperback)

It seems almost sacrilege to infringe upon a book as soulful and rich as Willa Cather's My Ántonia by offering comment. First published in 1918, and set in Nebraska in the late 19th century, this tale of the spirited daughter of a Bohemian immigrant family planning to farm on the untamed land ("not a country at all but the material out of which countries are made") comes to us through the romantic eyes of Jim Burden. He is, at the time of their meeting, newly orphaned and arriving at his grandparents' neighboring farm on the same night her family strikes out to make good in their new country. Jim chooses the opening words of his recollections deliberately: "I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to be an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America," and it seems almost certain that readers of Cather's masterpiece will just as easily pinpoint the first time they heard of Ántonia and her world. It seems equally certain that they, too, will remember that moment as one of great light in an otherwise unremarkable trip through the world.

Ántonia, who, even as a grown woman somewhat downtrodden by circumstance and hard work, "had not lost the fire of life," lies at the center of almost every human condition that Cather's novel effortlessly untangles. She represents immigrant struggles with a foreign land and tongue, the restraints on women of the time (with which Cather was very much concerned), the more general desires for love, family, and companionship, and the great capacity for forbearance that marked the earliest settlers on the frontier.

As if all this humanity weren't enough, Cather paints her descriptions of the vastness of nature--the high, red grass, the road that "ran about like a wild thing," the endless wind on the plains--with strokes so vivid as to make us feel in our bones that we've just come in from a walk on that very terrain ourselves. As the story progresses, Jim goes off to the University in Lincoln to study Latin (later moving on to Harvard and eventually staying put on the East Coast in another neat encompassing of a stage in America's development) and learns Virgil's phrase "Optima dies ... prima fugit" that Cather uses as the novel's epigraph. "The best days are the first to flee"--this could be said equally of childhood and the earliest hours of this country in which the open land, much like My Ántonia, was nothing short of a rhapsody in prairie sky blue. --Melanie Rehak

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:51 -0400)

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A New York lawyer remembers his boyhood in Nebraska and his friendship with a pioneer Bohemian girl.

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