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.
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.
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