Loved it. It’s been a while since I read two phenomenal books back-t0-back, but what a joy to follow up Out of Africa with My Antonia. My first Cather novel and definitely not my last. I have now dedicated myself to reading all of her work.
So what’s it about? Well…Antonia! Ha! Did you see that one coming? It’s the story of Antonia as told from childhood friend, Jim Burden. Antonia and Jim first meet on a wagon taking them from the train station to the Nebraska countryside that both children will now call home. Jim’s parents have died and he’s traveled from Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm. Antonia’s family has immigrated to the United States from Bohemia (Czech Republic) at the bequest of Antonia’s mother to make a better life for her children.
I know it doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but how wrong you would be! For non-classics readers out there, this story is one I highly suggest. Very readable, has a quicker pace and a slightly episodic feel. Humor is also abundant, in particular a scene with Tony’s mom and a cow – hilarious. And really, this is just a very human story told simply and sweetly without being sentimental. Tony’s story is not one of great fortune or misfortune and I loved how very true she stays to herself despite all the expectations her family, friends, and Jim are constantly thrusting upon her. The final scene where Jim goes to visit her in mid-life was endearing, wonderful, and filled with a gleeful happiness despite Jim’s worries about her being an old, hardened woman who didn’t live up to her potential. Tony is in love with her life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with no regrets and that just felt so refreshing.
What My Antonia also does well is pay gorgeous tribute to the mid-western countryside and small towns, the early farmers and settlers who established the towns and worked the lands. Without being overly flowery, Cather’s prose puts you in the heart of corn-country and in the hearts of the many immigrants who helped build the heartland of America.
Cather also does a superb job of recognizing perspective and honoring each individual human experience. Some characters love their new found American home while others long for their old country. Marriage is both rough for some and sweetly moving for others. There are the city lovers and the country lovers and those who love both. Cather has quite a talent for seeing and showing all range of human emotion equivocally and harmoniously which I appreciated tremendously as a reader.
And finally, the prose…what can I even say? I lingered on every sentence and never wanted the story to end. My Antonia has forever earned a place on my permanent shelves. I’d like to take a moment and share my favorite passage (it’s long, I apologize!):
As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world.
In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. 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 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.
‘I’ll come back,’ I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness.
‘Perhaps you will’ – I felt rather than saw her smile. ‘But even if you don’t, you’re here, like my father. So I won’t be lonesome.’
As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.