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.”

Review: Lila


LilaMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2014.

Summary: The story of the unlikely marriage between Lila, a homeless drifter, and Rev. John Ames, a widowed older pastor.

“And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.” (Ezekiel 16:4-6, American Standard Version)

These verses and the remainder of Ezekiel 16 are ones to which Lila is strangely drawn when she begins reading the Bible she took from the pews of John Ames church. The verses, really a parable of Israel, seem to parallel her life, and perhaps more than she knows.

Lila was a neglected toddler, stolen away from her family by Doll, which probably saved her life. They fell in with other drifters on the road during the Depression and became fiercely loyal to one another. Eventually Doll is in a knife fight where she kills a man, possibly Lila’s father, nearly dies, but eventually escapes custody and disappears. Lila drifts to St. Louis, works for a time in a house of ill repute, and then flees the city with a woman returning to Iowa and ends up in a shack near Gilead, Iowa. One Sunday, she wanders into the church of Rev. John Ames, an older, widowed pastor. And so begins a relationship, a searching dialogue between the two with questions like “why do things happen the way they do?” He and the church help her out and give her work. She asks him to baptize her. She tends the grave of his wife, cultivating roses. At one point Ames thanks her for caring for the grave and wishes there were something he could do for her. She says, “You ought to marry me.” and he answers, “Yes, you’re right. I will.”

And so begins a most unusual marriage, where Lila, who has never trusted anyone but Doll, must somehow believe this man really loves her. The beauty of the story is that he does, and yet gives her the room to believe it for herself. And in the midst of it all, she finds herself pregnant with his child. Much of the story is her reflections on being the motherless child, and her life on the road as the months of her pregnancy progress, interwoven with the careful, tender love of Ames, never forced, but ever present; fearing she might leave, yet never compelling her to stay, but simply offering his love, his home, and himself.

Robinson uses the device of telling the story of her former life as memories Lila reflects upon as she embarks on this new life with Ames. She muses on the strange, dangerous, and sometimes unseemly life she has lived even as she wrestles with the possibility of having really found a home, a love with this man, and that she can be the mother she never had apart from Doll. The answer to her question of why things happen they way they do must remain somehow with the sovereign God, but the working out of the way things happen is a story of grace, the discovering of an incomprehensible but unwavering love.

The third of the “Gilead” stories, Lila explores the deepest questions of existence and the searching question of how far may grace reach. Can it reach Lila? Doll? And what about us the readers? It’s worth reading to find out.