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: O Pioneers!

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994 (Originally published in 1913).

Summary: The first of the Great Plains Trilogy, the story of Alexandra Bergson’s love of the Nebraska hills, the costly choices she made, and the ill-fated love of her brother Emil.

I’ve only recently discovered Willa Cather, and realized that I have missed reading one of America’s great writers. This work, the first volume in the Great Plains Trilogy centers around Alexandra Bergstrom, a strong, red-haired woman. As she helped her dying father, it became clear that she and not her two older brothers, truly understood how to make the farm succeed that he had labored so hard to establish in the hills of Nebraska. When he died, she took over its management. When her brothers wanted to sell the farm during the drought, she went to see the river land they wanted to move to, and returned to propose that they mortgage the farm to add to the lands, her faith being so strong. In one of the pivotal passages of the book, Cather writes of her:

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman (Cather, p. 44).

Under her love, the expanded farm prospers, she buys out her brothers who acquire their own land. With old Ivar, who the brothers want to commit, and farmworkers and young girls to help, the fields, orchards, and stock flourish. But she is growing older, alone. Her one male friend from childhood, Carl Linstrum, his parents having sold the farm to Alexandra, has gone off to seek his fortune, and yet never finds it, secretly struggling to live up to Alexandra’s accomplishments, little realizing that this was not what she wanted.

Sadly, Alexandra also fails to recognize the yearnings drawing together her friend Marie, trapped in an unhappy marriage and her beloved youngest brother Emil, for whom she hoped so much. She sends Emil to help Marie in her troubles, little suspecting the attraction she is helping to fuel. One wonders if she fails to see the desires in others that she had suppressed in herself for so long.

One of the other things Cather captures is the ethnic diversity, each with their own settlements-the Norwegians, the French, the Bohemians, and the intersections between them at festivals, churches and daily life. Each has stereotypes of the others but also friendships, like that between Emil and Amedee, or Alexandra and Marie. Slowly, these different migrants are brought together but the challenges of Nebraska’s upland prairies.

I was also taken by the many descriptions of the land–the paths they walked, the pond where Emil shot the ducks with Marie by his side (a scene pregnant with foreshadowing), the rainstorm that clarified Alexandra’s grief and resolve, and the white mulberry tree. Amid all this, and dominating the whole is the strong character of Alexandra whose love of the land, shrewdness of character, generosity of friendship, and ultimately, a forgiveness that transcends grief makes her one of the great characters of American literature.