After the death of his parents, Jim is sent to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska plains. By chance on that same train is a bright-eyed girl, Antonia, who will become his neighbor and lifelong friend. Her family has emigrated from Bohemia to start a new life farming but soon lose their money and must work hard just to survive. Through it all, Antonia retains her natural pride and free spirit.
Well, it swept me up into a very intimate tale of Jim Burden who moves to Nebraska as a child and befriends a Bohemian family, especially their daughter Antonia. The story follows their early life on the farm, and then move to town, where Jim goes to school and Antonia works. We then follow Jim to college where he and another of the country girls develop a relationship and he learns of Antonia’s troubles. Finally, we are left with a view of Antonia, her many children, and her farm.
Country girls: “…I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigor which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women.” Vs. Town girls: “When one danced with them, their bodies never moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing – not to be disturbed. I remember those girls merely as faces in the schoolroom, gay and rosy, or listless and dull, cut off below the shoulders, like cherubs…” This country girl appreciates those descriptions.
Cather has a way of describing the landscape that makes you almost taste it. “Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons. It must have been the scarcity of detail in that tawny landscape that made detail so precious.” It has the melancholy texture of home. There are certain smells, plants, and sounds that instantly transport me to my youth. There is a feeling about the place one grows up that is hard to describe. There is a love that wells up that is not attached to an explicit memory but exists in some larger connection with a place and its people.
But there is also the tension of success. There is the idea that leaving and making your way is success, while staying home is a compromise. For someone like me who never wants to live in the home of my youth again, there is also the struggle of infusing your new life with the things of your past that were special to you. There is the urge to move forward, while not forgetting. It is something I think Cather shows us through the immigrants – those who wish to assimilate completely, those who wish to maintain their old life, and those who need to find a balance between the two. For me it was extremely powerful and evoked thoughts that I had not been able to fully form before – and this is the reason I read.
And finally, on Antonia: “Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade – that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one’s first primer: Antonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father’s grave in the snowstorm; Antonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”
The recollection involves several settler-families on the prairie and later on in the town of Lincoln. Nothing more needs to be told about this story.
It's just marvelous, entertaining and exciting. Based on Cathers own experiences moving to Nebraska as a child. It is very realistic, one doesn't want to depart with these characters - Antonia is a fascinating character torn between her new hard life in Nebraska and her old home in Bohemia. A hot-tempered girl, a survivor, resourcefull and hard-working. But personally I bonded more with the narrator himself. Admired him in his many decisions and thoughts.
There's so much truth in this story, so many real human emotions and experiences told with nuance and depth. Just read it. Or better: Listen to the wonderful audiobook read by Jeff Cummings.
We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women’s faces, at the very bottom of my memory.
The Antonia of the title is a high-spirited immigrant Bohemian girl whose family has moved onto the neighbouring homestead. She catches the attention of the narrator and although he is very young, you slowly come to realize that he looks upon her with love. Although there is and never could be a future for these two together, this book is something of a romance as his feelings toward Antonia and his feelings toward the land are so intertwined.
Although I wasn’t totally carried away, I consider myself to be lucky that I stumbled upon this book, a slow starter, it gently enfolds you and by the end of the book, you feel as if you have learned a great deal about life when it was simpler, relationships when they were less complicated, and the simple joy of living. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the “heart” of America, and the mixtures of people that settled and developed this land.
Cather's imagery of the prairie is unsurpassed. She not only conveys the appearance, but makes you feel the presence; spring, for instance: "There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia . . . There was only--spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere; in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind--rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring."
Her characters are never as noble as the land.
Antonia to Jim Burden is a childhood vignette, a sister figure, a romantic kiss rebuffed. He is called away to manhood, but never takes root in his marriage or in his career. He revisits his childhood when he at last visits Antonia on her farm, sleeping in her barn, not in her house, anticipating the happiness of sharing the childhood of her sons until they grow up.
Antonia Shimerda perhaps could have made a life with Jim, but she thought first of him as a callow youngster. Later, she recognized his calling and would not see him trapped on the farm, perhaps leading to the same conclusion as Mr. Shimerda's. She herself was trapped--her father's suicide foreclosed an education and the uplifted hopes of the second-generation immigrant. She was recalled to the first generation, worked the family farm in a man's role. Only her children would see a better future. She did what she had to in order to survive--not to the extreme of Peter of the wolves, but she also was made of such stern, but vulnerable, stuff.
Antonia made a comfortable life for herself on her own farm--a little island of Bohemia, with a Bohemian husband and nearly a dozen children who spoke only Bohemian at home. Not noble, not heroic, but real, and the best possible given the circumstances. Not a place that Jim could help build, but one where he would always be a welcome guest.
"There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made".
"I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep".
"... then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: 'This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.' It was as if we were being being punished for loving the loveliness of summer".
"Yet the summer which was to change everything was coming nearer every day. When boys and girls are growing up, life can't stand still, not even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no. That is what their elders are always forgetting".
"On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share - black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun. Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie".
"'Come and see me sometimes when you're lonesome. But maybe you have all the friends you want. Have you?' She turned her soft cheek to me. 'Have you?' she whispered teasingly in my ear. In a moment I watched her fade down the dusky stairway. ... It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry".
"I tramped through the puddles and under the showery trees, mourning for Marguerite Gauthier as if she had died only yesterday, sighing with the spirit of 1840, which had sighed so much, and which had reached me only that night, across long years and several languages, through the person of an infirm old actress".
"I slept that night in the room I used to have when I was a little boy, with the summer wind blowing in at the windows, bringing the smell of the ripe fields. I lay awake and watched the moonlight shining over the barn and the stacks and the pond, and the windmill making its old dark shadow against the blue sky".
"'Of course it means you are going away from us for good,' she said with a sigh. 'But that doesn't mean I'll lose you. Look at my papa here; he's been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life".
"I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there. We reached the edge of the field, where are ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were..."
"As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and a girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass".
"I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again".
"Before I could sit down in the chair she offered me, the miracle happened; one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy, excited passages in life. Antonia came in and stood before me..."
"The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Antonia and me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past".
The quote on the title page from Virgil "Optima Dies ... prima fugit", or, "The best days are the first to flee".
This classic work of American fiction has been on my TBR list for far, far too long. Not sure what took me so long, since I loved O Pioneers! and especially the breathtakingly lovely Death Comes for the Archbishop. What a lovely book, with rich descriptions of the midwestern prairie and the hardworking souls who make their life on it. The narrator is young Jim Burden, who describes the toil and bleakness of the early prairie farmsteads in the exuberant sweet nostalgia of a young person growing up with both wild independence and great responsibility. At the heart of the narrative is the young immigrant Antonia, whose spirit has captivated Jim his whole life; the story serves as a paean to all immigrant women making their lives on the prairie. Simply a lovely, lovely book.
The other thing I noticed while reading this book - I realize it's the same in O Pioneers - Cather is really great at creating peripheral characters. It is really lifelike, in that there are people who are our friends and family, and then there are the people we know, and the others we are just acquainted with. Yet each of these peripheral acquaintances is a real character in her narrative - there are no flat characters. It makes it more believable, as everyone is real, and no one is stereotypical.
And suddenly I’m tongue tied, not sure what to say about it. The reaction of my book group was very all over the place about it.
It’s the story of Jim and his Antonia, (or not his) who grow up on the wild and formless frontier of Nebraska, at the turn of the century.
It’s the story of the immigrant, the Swedes and the Norwegians and the Danes who came over here with a few dollars and a desire to make a new start. Some of them made it, and prospered and helped to make America. Some of them didn’t make it, and died in hardship and want and loneliness.
Cather was widely believed to have been a Lesbian, and there are many lovely portraits here of women who went their own way and didn’t need marriage or a man to feel happy or complete. Gay women? Maybe? Great characters? And how!
The day to day details of farm life are recounted, and made to seem intimate and real and meaningful. The wheel of the seasons is presented to us, and each season given its due.
I love the story of the hired men, who work on the farm and become Jim's friends and teachers and almost elder brothers, and then, when the time comes, move on. They get on the train without a backward glance and just ride out of the story. This too is a part of the American journey.
The main character of the book seems sometimes to be America herself – the towns and the farms and the railroads. The beautiful sparse prairielands and the bustling boomer towns, and the practical hard working people who came to live in them.
Because the whole book is told as memoir, and in conscious flashback, I found myself distanced at times - and not in a good way. It’s a slow and measured story. You have to downshift a bit to get the full pleasure of it.
But the writing is wonderful and spare and clear and beautiful. Makes me want to go back and read the first two books of the trilogy.
This is an exquisite novel about life on the frontier and the immigrant experience in America. But mainly about love, loss, innocence, the pain of growing up, and "how much people can mean to each other."
The characters are passionate, beautifully drawn, yet consistently surprising. Cather's technique is indirect, or as she called it "unfurnished." What's left out is often more important than what's stated. The reader is left to interpret the meaning and importance of ambiguous actions and feelings.
It used to said that the late 19th Century was the Golden Age of the Novel. But I think it was the first two decades of the 20th Century when the form reached its zenith. That's when Joyce, Lawrence, and Conrad were writing books with unprecedented technical brilliance and psychological depth. In her quiet, understated way, Willa Cather was doing the same.
And to avoid the dreaded LT blue flag, here's my review: Cather's masterpiece was boring as snot..
The story provides such an interesting look at immigrant life in Nebraska. There’s an underlying prejudice against the immigrants and they struggle to fit in. We know very little about Antonia’s father before he dies, but we later learn he loved to read and discuss ideas, but he struggled with the new language and felt completely out of place in America. The language barrier also increases their suspicions of those around them, because they’re constantly worried they are going to be deceived. Though their fears are sometimes justified, it doesn’t go far to make them new friends.
I enjoyed the writing in this one, but the story didn’t resonate for me in the same way that Cather’s O Pioneers did. I went into that one knowing almost nothing and loved it so much. I think my expectations were a bit too high for this one. Jim isn’t a very charismatic character and when the plot meanders, we rely heavily on great characters. Luckily the writing is still wonderful, but I was left wanting a bit more.
I’m still definitely a fan of her work though and I’m looking forward to trying Death Comes for the Archbishop next, but my expectations might be a bit more tempered.
“I wondered if the life that was right for one was ever right for two.”
“I liked to watch a play with Lena; everything was wonderful to her, and everything was true. It was like going to revival meetings with someone who was always being converted. She handed her feelings over to the actors with a kind of fatalistic resignation. Accessories of costume and scene meant much more to her than to me.”
I look forward to reading more of Ms Cather.
This book is about the pioneer experience in Nebraska, particularly that of Eastern European immigrants, and is also the coming of age story of Jim Burden (narrator), and Ántonia. While the book is told from Jim's point of view, I felt more connected to Ántonia. Jim and Ántonia are friends from the moment they meet, and as the seasons and the landscape of Nebraska prairie change, so do Jim and Ántonia. They eventually take very different paths, but their friendship remains. Jim is a romantic, and very nostalgic about the past. Ántonia is the symbol of the past for him. I was wrapped up in his feelings of nostalgia, and longing for the past. As I was reading, I felt them too. I particularly loved his descriptions of the Nebraska prairie.
Avg= 9.1= ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
#backtotheclassics (Classic from the Americas- includes the Caribbean)
#mmdchallenge (a book published before you were born)
Antonia's impact on the narrator is significant, as is his impact on her. One of my favorite passages, one that describes the powerful nature of their connection, is similar to another facvorite Cather passage in Death Comes for the Archbishop. After two decades apart, Jim Burden, the narrator, returns to see Antonia and her large family. "Before I could sit down in the chair she offered me, the miracle happened; one of those quieter moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy, excited passages in life. Antonia came in and stood before me..."
As we learn what has become of the characters we have met, many of whom have had circuitous routes to their current station in life (or death), Jim looks back realizing he and Antonia may have missed out on many things. He also realizes that the early days they shared were precious then - and precious still. The intervening years saw each following very different paths, but, in the end, those paths crossed and were joyous because of those memories, not sadly tainted with regret.
The story revolves around a young orphan Jim Berden who, on his parents' death, is sent to live on his grandparents' farm in rural Nebraska. On the same train that brings Jim to Nebraska are also some Bohemian immigrants, the Shimedas, who have purchased the neighbouring farm. As the Shimedas struggle through their first winter, Jim develops a friendship with their daughter Antonia, only a couple of years older than him. Despite the title of [My Antonia] the book follows rather the course of Jim's life: but as he moves with his grandparents into the town of Black Rock and later into the city to pursue a college career, his interest in Antonia continues.
Antonia is clearly meant to represent an archetypal pioneer woman struggling with hardship and yet holding her family together through thick and thin. Perhaps this was the problem for me: it is much more difficult to care about an archetype than a living and breathing human being and so I didn't feel at all bound up in the fate of Antonia, or in that of any of the other characters of the book for that matter. There is far too much telling rather than showing, with the reader routinely being brought up to date with each character's history in a few paragraphs, which increases the effect of everyone seeming rather distant and unreal. And there isn't much plot, just a young man's fairly uneventful journey into adulthood: I can cope without plot if the rest of the book makes up for it, but here it did not.
I feel rather guilty giving such a low rating to such a highly regarded book, but in all honestly from a personal perspective I can't give it any more. So two and a half stars only.
Set anywhere other than the Nebraska prairies, My Ántonia would have been a different book. With Midwestern roots on both sides of my family, I'm drawn to Cather's descriptions of the land. Jim tells us that he loved Ántonia, but what I sense most from his recollections is a kind of wistful envy. Jim had become what most would consider a very successful person – a wealthy East Coast lawyer – yet he seemed discontented with his life. Ántonia lived a much more circumscribed life, yet she had a zest for life that Jim lacked. Both literally and symbolically, I think Ántonia's life was more fruitful than Jim's, and I think her story is a fitting conclusion to Cather's Prairie trilogy.
Cather sets up a frame narrative for Jim Burden to (un)burden himself of his particular relationship with Ántonia. And thus, although Ántonia might be said to be the subject of the novel, we often encounter her obliquely. Certainly we are closer to Jim, since this is first person narration, but Ántonia is ever the sympathetic focus. Indeed Jim periodically reveals unsociable flashes. But he always returns eventually to sociability and to fond remembrance of Ántonia. And in relating his story of her, he conveys a story of America itself, even if in keeping with the partiality of the title it might be better to think of it as Jim’s America.
A true classic that can be recommended unreservedly.