In My Ántonia, Willa Cather writes about our American past, its western expansion, rugged living, and the indomitable spirit of the men and women of the late 1800s. The character of Antonia embodies all this, but the book is so much more. It’s a portrait of our country’s history and its people, their struggle and their triumphs and their story.
The development is simple.
- Book I The Shimerdas
- Book II The Hired Girls
- Book III Lena Lingard
- Book IV The Pioneer Woman’s Story
- Book V Cuzak’s Boys
Book I introduces us to young Antonia’s Bohemian family who settled in Nebraska along with Swedes, Norwegians, and Czechs. The next book follows her life into town as a hired girl along with the other immigrants who hope to help their families and maybe do a bit more for themselves.
In Book III, the narrator, Jim Burden, moves to the university but there’s a distraction, Lena Lingard. Lena wasn’t the “nice” girl from town, but Cather lets readers know there is no one path to success for those with pioneering spirit.
Lena’s success puzzled me. She was so easy-going; had none of the push and self-assertiveness that get people ahead in business. She had come to Lincoln, a country girl, with no introductions except to some cousins of Mrs. Thomas who lived there, and she was already making clothes for the women of “the young married set.” (Cather, Book III).
The fourth book takes stock of the women we meet in the book, their likely and unlikely futures. Tiny “was to lead the most adventurous life and to achieve the most solid worldly success.” (Cather, Book IV) And Antonia makes a life for herself despite abandonment.
The highlight in Book IV is the narrator Jim Burden’s visit with Antonia after she is disgraced in a fatherless childbirth. Afterwards, Jim doesn’t see her for twenty years, a period of time when he makes his life, marries, lives in New York.
But he comes back to her and to Nebraska, as he always has in his mind. And in Book V, Jim is reunited with Antonia who has married a poor Bohemian and had a large family. Her life on the farm has been hard.
I was thinking, as I watched her, how little it mattered — about her teeth, for instance. I know so many women who have kept all the things that she had lost, but whose inner glow has faded. Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life. Her skin, so brown and hardened, had not that look of flabbiness, as if the sap beneath it had been secretly drawn away. (Cather, Book V)
This story is told amid stark imagery and the plains, using beautiful language. Against this backdrop, Cather tells occasional dark tales that take you by surprise. Life was never easy, nor was it simple. I found myself going back to make sure I understood.
Antonia’s father commits suicide in the depths of winter, forcing the family to wait until a thaw to deal with his corpse. One story is circulated about the neighbors: two Russian brothers unloaded a bride from their wagon to escape a pack of wolves. Their lives are cursed and the evil deed, like the wolves, chases them to their graves. In the second book, Tony (Antonia) shared a story about a tramp who showed up during threshing. It wasn’t always clear where Tony was going with her stories, but this tramp seemed the same as any you might imagine except when he jumped in to help, he did more than help. He dove headfirst into the threshing machine with the wheat.
Some pioneers survived and a few thrived. But desperate men took desperate measures. And perhaps, the beauty of the story is similar to its setting; each is exceptional because of a contrast of extremes.
When Antonia’s family finally got around to burying the father, none of the churches would accommodate the Bohemian man who took his own life. So, the family buried him at the corner of their property, “indeed, under the very stake that marked the corner.”
This passage is Cather at her best. It struck me for its eloquence, the simple and final prayer filled with American generosity.
Grandmother looked anxiously at grandfather. He took off his hat, and the other men did likewise. I thought his prayer remarkable. I still remember it. He began, `Oh, great and just God, no man among us knows what the sleeper knows, nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and Thee.’ He prayed that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart. He recalled the promises to the widow and the fatherless, and asked God to smooth the way before this widow and her children, and to `incline the hearts of men to deal justly with her.’ In closing, he said we were leaving Mr. Shimerda at `Thy judgment seat, which is also Thy mercy seat.’ (Book I, Chapter XVI)
Read more at Goodreads link to My Antonia.