My Antonia, by Willa Cather

My Antonia

My Antonia is a classic American novel about pioneers in Nebraska in the late 1800s. It is told in the first person by Jim Burden, a 10 year old boy at the start of the novel, who comes to rural Nebraska near the fictional Black Hawk to live with his grandparents after the death of his parents in Virginia.

The book is his story, but it is at least as much the story of the title character Antonia Shimerda. Antonia, four years older than Jim, arrives in Nebraska with her family by coincidence at the same time as Jim. They are from Bohemia and speak almost no English. They take up residence on a neighboring farm—though this is out in the middle of nowhere, so even “neighbors” are a substantial distance away.

Though both families are farmers, Jim’s family is considerably better off. The Burdens have more to begin with, they have experience and skills as farmers whereas the Shimerdas are non-farmers trying to learn as they go along, and they have the subtle social advantages of being English-speaking Americans with roots in the community whereas the Shimerdas basically just got off the last boat.

Jim and Antonia become friends. At times during their childhood—or I suppose his childhood and her teens—they are inseparable best friends, and at times their lives are on different paths and they travel mostly in different social circles so they’re not all that closely connected. But they—especially Jim—retain an attitude that there’s something special about their relationship.

I think the age difference is important. I get the feeling Cather didn’t want the story to be a classic romance, where they grow up together and gradually their love moves from friendship to something more romantic and sexual as they mature and then they end up as a couple. Yet she didn’t want that angle completely absent, so she made one a boy and one a girl and put them close enough in age that at least some rudimentary feelings of that kind could develop to complicate things—mostly one way as you’d expect from Antonia being several years older; Jim has more of a crush on her than she does on him, though he doesn’t really seek to pursue it.

So there’s a little bit of that sexual tension eventually, but mostly that’s not the nature of their friendship.

At about the same time a few years after Jim and Antonia meet, the Burdens move to Black Hawk and then Antonia takes a job as a servant in a nearby household, and though they are again in close proximity, as I noted there is more going on in their lives now and their interaction is more limited compared to when they were younger and lived on their respective farms. In time Jim goes off to college in Lincoln and eventually onto law school, and he hears that Antonia has gotten married, or at least was supposed to get married but had the marriage fall through in a traumatizing manner.

I’ve read great praise for this novel and how powerful it is in conveying the pioneer life. Perhaps that raised my expectations too much, because I anticipated feeling considerably more for these characters than I did.

This is a fairly short novel; it may be that for it to make me feel that I truly knew these people and understood the kind of lives they led it needed to be more of an epic length. Instead it’s like we see little snippets of life, but not enough to draw conclusions from.

For instance, there’s a character in town who makes an effort to exploit his position as employer to sexually assault Antonia. Are we to understand that that was a common danger at that time in the West? Since it’s a one-time thing, and she doesn’t experience anything like it before or after, there’s no pattern, no sense of hopelessness that this was the lot of girls in her position. Maybe it was the norm; maybe he was a fluke—we don’t know.

The book supposedly depicts what an incredibly tough life it was eking out an existence on the prairie, but again I didn’t get anything like the feeling of overwhelming obstacles and tragedies that I have from many other books and movies. What there is is a good deal of hard work, but mostly the farmers get by just fine. Certainly there’s little struggle to speak of for the Burdens. The Shimerdas are poorer and only sort of know what they’re doing so they go through some rougher times in the early years especially, but they more or less get it together and do OK eventually.

Even though Jim tends to gravitate more to the folks like Antonia—the recent immigrants and poorer farmers who are more likely to be servants when they come to town—the ones he keeps track of as adults all seem to come out fine. For a time he thinks Antonia herself may be the exception, but really her adult life isn’t so terrible.

The material circumstances of the characters in My Antonia range from comfortable to struggling somewhat but still getting by, and in terms of non-material things like the quality of their family relationships and friendships and such they mostly do a bit better. I’m not saying it’s a life I would want for myself, but this isn’t a depressing story of people with bleak, miserable lives full of pain and suffering. Jim clearly looks back at his childhood in rural Nebraska and the early years of his friendship with Antonia as being something of a peak, not something he’s relieved to have escaped from.

Not that there’s zero tragedy and suffering in the novel. In fact, maybe the aspect of the story that had the most effect on me emotionally was the tragic inability of Antonia’s father to adapt to his new life. In the old country, he made a living as a musician, not a farmer, and he was surrounded by extended family, friends, and a physical environment that he loved. He reluctantly came to America due to circumstances and an insistent wife, but it simply wasn’t the life he wanted, or even a life he could tolerate. He’s utterly lost in Nebraska, where he can’t even speak the language. Back home he was a respected, successful, cultured man. Now he’s an illiterate incompetent.

My Antonia is not a difficult book certainly. It’s well-written and flows easily enough. Some readers might find it unsatisfying in that it doesn’t really have a main story to it, but is more episodic in summarizing some of the major events of these characters’ lives over the course of a few decades, but it held my interest at a no worse than average level for a novel.

I suppose I liked it more than not. It’s just that I expected it to hit me at a deeper level emotionally.

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