I had never heard of Willa Cather before or any her books set in the harsh and fertile American plains of the 19th century, but I am glad I have now. I came across this one after winning a selection of vintage paperbacks from macrolit’s monthly Tumblr giveaways a few months ago and the journey, both through the book and in learning about who Willa Cather was, has been fascinating.
The cover and synopsis didn’t interest me much, and so I set it aside to read only when I had nothing else. I wish I had given it a better chance from the beginning because it proved to not only be well-written but relevant to our current political and culture climate surrounding immigration.
In My Antonia, considered to be Cather’s masterpiece, we follow Jim Burden through loosely told stories he has pieced together from his past. From a recently orphaned boy shipped from his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents, pioneers in Nebraska. In looking back over his life in the country, he realizes everything he loved about that time and land have one thing in common: Antonia, the eldest daughter in a family of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new land and culture. Jim and Antonia grow up always near one another, but their lives follow very different paths, separating and converging in often surprising ways.
I didn’t realize until after I had read the book that is was the third installment in the Great Plains Trilogy. I didn’t read the others, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything having skipped them.
Cather has a strong command of descriptive prose, and I really felt pulled into the time period and the place. I felt the harsh winters. I felt the warm summers. I felt the uncertainties for the future and the devotion to a way of life so different from my own. The story is a good one but the description, the way she pulls you in physically and emotionally, was genius.
The book did make me think a little about how the burden of immigration and of “differentness” has often fallen harder on the shoulders of women. In hard times women are expected to be women and to also be men. I would love to have heard the story from Antonia’s perspective, but I suppose this would have been a story with a very different message and focus.
As a woman, and as a person living in a time when there is so much ignorance surrounding immigrants and their lives, I think My Antonia has value today. Americans can never understand how hard it is to become an American, in heart and in culture, not just on paper. We can’t see the rocks and the hard places we put these people between with our judgment and ridicule.
I recommend My Antonia because it will make you think and because it is simply a lovely story. It is inspiring, and heart-wrenching, like all the best stories, are. If nothing else, I recommend it because it is a quick read and a piece of American history.