Review: My Ántonia

My Ántonia, Willa Cather (Foreword Kathleen Norris). Boston: Mariner, 1995 (Originally published in 1918, no publisher web link available).

Summary: Jim Burden’s narrative of his relationship growing up on the prairie with Ántonia Shimerda, one he would live with throughout his life.

[Review includes spoilers.]

Jim Burden was an orphaned boy who came to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Ántonia Shimerda was a young girl, four years older, of Bohemian immigrants living nearby. This story, described in the opening narrative as a manuscript describing his friendship with Ántonia, given to a friend from the same town in Nebraska months after a train ride in which they had spoken of her.

Jim is quickly enlisted to teach Ántonia English so she can help with the family’s transactions in the community. And thus begins a deep friendship between the two lasting a lifetime. Tragedy quickly shadows Ántonia’s life when her sickly and unhappy father, several weeks after a beautiful Christmas Day visit, takes his life. Ántonia and her brother Ambrosch are left to eke out a living, and they do, by Ambrosch brute force and Ántonia’s hard work, through which she becomes somehow even more vibrant. Their friendship continues in the moments she is free, including an incident in which Jim, who happens to be carrying a shovel, kills a deadly and huge rattler, becoming a hero to her and all.

Later, Jim’s grandparents move to town and Ántonia also takes up a job, working as a housekeeper with Mrs. Harling, teaching her domestic arts she has not learned on the farm. The two keep up, Jim shunning younger girls for Ántonia and her friend Lena, to whom he is attracted. Lena has different ideas, and becomes an independent dressmaker, beholden to no man and eventually living in San Francisco. Jim went off to college and eventually law school. Meanwhile, Ántonia goes off with a young man to get married. He abandons her, pregnant. She returns home and joyfully, as she does so much, raises her daughter, leaving shame to others. She and her brother work together on the farm. Jim returns once to visit, holding her hands as he prepares to return to school, saying he will return.

It is twenty years until he does. They do continue to write. In the meanwhile, Ántonia marries Anton Cuzak, with whom she has ten children and builds a prosperous farm. Jim becomes a railroad lawyer. The book concludes with his visit to the farm, where he meets the children and Anton.

As in O Pioneers, the story unfolds amid Cather’s descriptions of the glories of the Nebraska prairie. And like that story, Cather portrays a woman of strength and joy in her life. One senses she could have spent her life with Jim, who never pursues her beyond their shared friendship. And yet she not merely accepts, but joyfully embraces a life with Anton, who honors her initiative and industry. We sense that Jim comes to realize this as well. What strikes me is that each honors the commitments of the other. A modern novel would probably have written in an affair that would destroy them both, and Ántonia’s family in the bargain. They choose a different road, generous friendship that honors boundaries, and finds joy in what they have, “the precious, incommunicable past.”

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