My Antonia, Willa Cather, Reading a classic is a more civil, more genteel experience. Gone is the fear that on any page there will be unnecessary violent bloodshed, objectionable language, distasteful sexual innuendos, repulsive descriptions and convoluted plots, to name just a few. Also gone is the unexpected startling conclusion. Events progress in a very orderly fashion and while we might not anticipate the ending, we don’t expect astonishing finales. The story is told beautifully, in a direct manner, without the use of extraneous devices or artifice to inspire the reader, instead the emphasis is on the beauty and expression of the language used.
Short by today’s standards, this book is less than 300 pages. It is written for a wide age range and is often a book assigned in school for those even as young as fifth or sixth grade. Because it is not written in the often hedonistic style of many of today’s novels, it is appropriate for young and old. The one drawback of the novel for me was that it seemed almost too simplistic, too passé, perhaps not interesting enough for today’s adult reader and might be more appropriate for younger readers, who are still a little naïve, so they can learn about and understand the evolution of our country and its people. Although the story being told is realistic, the reality today is so much more complicated, that the book may seem a bit out of touch without the benefit of analysis and discussion. In some ways we have indeed moved on, but overall, we sometimes seem to be standing in the same place, perhaps a little more sophisticated but by no means, less imperfect.
At the tender age of 10, Jim Burden is orphaned and sent from his home in Virginia, to Nebraska, to live with his grandparents. There he meets Antonia, from Bohemia. Although she speaks no English and is four years his elder, a deep abiding friendship soon develops between them. The story is told by Jim Burdon, in the form of his memoir, but it basically is the story of Antonia through his eyes.
Antonia is the embodiment of the strong, capable member of the pioneer family. The love of the land and its conquest motivates them. Although their lives are hard, they embrace it, bearing children, suffering hardships of climate, mortgages, ruined crops and failure and even, unfaithful spouses. Cather gives most of her immigrant female characters independent personalities at a time when the difference in class and station was highly evident and emphasized. The upper class women sat at home, perhaps doing their needlepoint. Exertion was considered unseemly. Yet, the farm girls worked the land or worked for families in town doing chores and performing menial labor. In reality they had more freedom of expression and freedom of choice to find their futures. For the sophisticated, refined woman, life consisted mainly of the hearth and home and proper decorum.
The novel is easy to read. There are no extra words or confusing extraneous tangents. The reader will find the rather uncomplicated characters endearing with their homespun, earthy, personalities coupled with the real and touching experiences they endure at the turn of the 20th century. Although life was simpler than, immigrants and early pioneers suffered from the most of the same problems society faces today. The relationship of married partners, family members and friends is explored. Loyalty, ambition and greed, class distinction and prejudice, inequality for women, and even enduring hope and fulfillment of one’s dreams, are themes which are also visited in this book. This is a story of life, of survival, of accommodation to hardship. It is not exciting like the modern books of today, but it is beautiful literature about real people and their choices, how they lived and how they died, what they held important and what they held dear.