Tag Archives: Nebraska

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia was Willa Cather’s fourth novel. She wrote twelve in all. Her early novels appeal with their frank nostalgia for the pioneer life in Nebraska. She has feisty young women in her stories, and this too is attractive.

The story of My Antonia

My Antonia is a story of pioneers, based on Willa Cather’s own childhood. It is told by Jim Burden, and features Antonia Shimerda his childhood companion. The story begins with their shared childhood and continues into mature adult life. Jim is orphaned and comes to live in Nebraska with his grandparents. Antonia arrives with her family at the same time. The Shimerdas come from Bohemia and have little English and no sense of farming, so initially do very poorly. It emerges that it was Mrs Shimerda who argued for the family to emigrate in order to give her oldest and favourite son Ambrosch the best start in life. The difficulties mount in winter and the father shoots himself. The family struggle to make a living.

Antonia works hard, sometimes on the family farm, sometimes helping families in the towns. As a young woman she departs to marry a train conductor who leaves her pregnant and unmarried. She returns to Nebraska, marries a decent guy and has many children. Jim visits them on their modest farm in Nebraska. By this time Nebraska is no longer frontier country, farming is established and people are settled.

The appeal of My Antonia

Antonia is an attractive character, flawed but engaging. From the start she demonstrates a strong will and a determination to learn. Much of the pleasure of this novel comes from the childhood Antonia and Jim shared on the wild plains, especially in the summer months.

As with O Pioneers!, the landscape of Nebraska is a character in this novel. These are the first farmers, and in Jim and Antonia’s childhood there are no fences, few delineated fields. But the freedom of the prairies brings the need for hard work and community. Willa Cather is at pains to show the strength that this life required of the settlers and especially of the young girls. Only 50 years later American women were being encouraged to buy a very different dream – life in suburbia.

Willa Cather Prairie, Nebraska

As the pioneers face the winter conditions and Antonia’s family’s attempts to make their way Willa Cather offers us the virtues of the community. When Antonia’s father shoots himself their neighbours set to and organise the funeral and then support the family until they can stand up for themselves. The families share hardship, bounty and celebrations.

Hard work is another virtue, also celebrated in O Pioneers! All the successful and likeable characters turn their hands to everything, and work tirelessly to ensure the farms keep going. Sometimes special effort is required, as in deep winter or harvest time. The women in particular are shown as every bit as significant in their labours as the men. In a section called The Hired Girls, Willa Cather describes what these early settler girls took on even as they became more independent.

Determined to help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no alternative but to go into service. Some of them after they came to town, remained as serious and as discreet in behavior as they had been when they ploughed and herded on their father’s farm. Others, like the three Bohemian Marys, tried to make up for the years of youth they had lost. But everyone one of them did what she set out to do, and sent home those hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten. (97)

Some of the young pioneer women take up other enterprises, and they do well. Lena, for example, knows her mind from early on. Despite being very attractive to men she has determined not to marry.

“I don’t want to marry Nick, or any other man,” Lena murmured. “I’ve seen a good deal of married life, and I don’t care for it. I want to be so I can help my mother and the children at home, and not have to ask lief of anybody.” (80)

Lena becomes a very successful seamstress. She does not marry. She supports her mother.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She led an active life as a journalist, writing novels, editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. A prairie is named after her (see photo)

I reviewed O Pioneers! in the decades project series (1910-1919) last year. You can find a link to the post here.

My Antonia Willa Cather first published in 1918. I read the Dover Thrift edition. 175pp

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Picture credit: Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, Webster County, southern Nebraska, September 2010 by Ammodramus, via WikiCommons

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! is a wholesome version of the American Dream: set in Nebraska, and showing that hard work and order can produce food from the ground and money in your pocket. The distinctive feature of O Pioneers! is that the creator of this wealth is a woman, Alexandra Bergson. She is such a contrast to Lily Bart in The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in the previous decade!

This is my second review in the Decades Project. More details below.

What a difference!

It wasn’t a deliberate choice to consider the contrasts between Lily Bart and The House of Mirth and Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! but they are telling. The earlier novel was set in New York and Europe, an eastward-looking novel. O Pioneers! takes place in Nebraska, part of the westward settlement of the North American interior. Willa Cather’s family had travelled from Virginia to Nebraska to build their lives there, beginning as farmers.

In O Pioneers! the Bergsons do not have money. They have come from Sweden to Nebraska and the land they cultivate has never been worked before. Alexandra is a capable young woman, and her father recognises her ability to manage the farm before his early death. She continues his work, caring for her three brothers, and developing the farm. After an initial struggle she does very well, through a combinations of research, investment and experimentation. She is able to provide the two oldest boys with their own farms, a university education to the youngest boy and a home and employment to an assortment of other people. She is well regarded in their community.

Unlike Lily, Alexandra hardly considers marriage, and certainly does not see it as a necessity or as her destiny.

She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times. (112)

One of the most poignant scenes involves the two older brothers, Oscar and Lou, who warn Alexandra against marrying Carl, a childhood friend who has returned to stay with her. By this time Alexandra has built up a large and thriving ranch, employing several people. Oscar says, ‘people have begun to talk’. Lou tells her,

‘You ought to think a little about your family. You’re making us all ridiculous.’

‘How am I?’

‘People are beginning to say you want to marry the fellow.’ …

Oscar rose. ‘Yes’, he broke in, ‘everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!’ (91-2)

Alexandra has nothing more to do with these brothers after this. It’s refreshing to read a novel from 100 years ago suggesting that a women’s marriage is not the business of the male members of her family. She does eventually marry Carl, on her own terms.

Other features of O Pioneers!

The novel includes a double murder of a pair of lovers. A strange aspect of the plot is that Alexandra visits the murderer in prison, and vows to use her influence to get him pardoned. The introduction to my edition suggests that Alexandra has a ‘rage for order’ and the lovers had disrupted the order of the community. The text suggests an additional reason for her response: she likes to do things, make things better. She loved both the victims, but she cannot do anything for them, but she pities the wronged husband and believes she can do something for him.

The characters in the novel are sharply drawn. Alexandra herself comes across as a vivid and energetic pioneer. She is in sharp contrast to Marie, the Bohemian (that is she came from Bohemia – provenance is important to pioneers) who is attractive, lively and always cheerful. Alexandra’s brothers are cautious, resentful, not models of pioneer spirit.

One character, Ivar, suffers fits of some kind, and keeps himself away from the community, living in an adapted cave, and reading the Bible. He has a particular ability with horses. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra when he gets too old to look after himself, an indication of her generous and tolerant spirit.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

I have indicated that this novel draws on Willa Cather’s own experience. She described the writing of this, her second novel, in 1931, using a rural analogy.

I began to write a book entirely for myself, a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. … Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. (170: from My First Novels)

Born in 1873, Willa Cather adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. She had an active life as a journalist, writing novels, including My Antonia, editing magazines, and traveling in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, for example.

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. Edition used in this review is by Oxford World Classics. 179 pp

The Decade Project

My library encourages reading with a Reading Passport. It is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I will read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1910s in February and so on and to review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1920s

I plan to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie for March’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

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