Between now and December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by the Classics Club. There are many classic female authors whose work I’m looking forward to reading, but I decided to begin with a book by Willa Cather. I read my first (and until now, my only) Cather novel more than five years ago; it was The Professor’s House and, although I did like her writing, I wasn’t very impressed. I suspected, though, that it just wasn’t the right book for me and that I would enjoy a different one more. My Ántonia, probably Cather’s most well-known and well-loved novel, seemed the obvious choice for a second attempt.
First published in 1918, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a lawyer, who is looking back on his childhood and his relationship with Ántonia Shimerda. Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim leaves his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as the Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian immigrants who are hoping to build a new life for themselves on the plains and who will become the Burdens’ closest neighbours. Ántonia is only a few years older than Jim and a friendship soon forms between the two of them.
I loved the first part of the book, showing the struggles faced by a family of immigrants trying to adapt to a new country and a new lifestyle (the Shimerdas are completely unprepared for the harshness of their first winter in Nebraska). Written in the beautiful prose I remembered from The Professor’s House, there are some wonderful, vivid descriptions of the landscape, the sod houses and rough dugouts in which the pioneer families live, the tall prairie grasses and the changing seasons.
Later in the novel, Jim’s grandparents decide they are growing too old to work on the land any longer and the family move to Black Hawk, their nearest town. It’s not long before Ántonia also comes to town, to work as a housekeeper, and she and Jim renew their friendship for a while – but due to differences in background, gender and education, their lives eventually take them in very different directions. Although Jim and Ántonia grow apart over the years, both characters continue to cherish their childhood memories and their shared experiences of life on the Nebraska plains.
While Ántonia is the title character, the whole story is seen through Jim’s eyes and there are long sections, particularly in the second half of the book, where Jim is discussing his time at university or his relationship with Lena Lingard (another immigrant girl) and Ántonia is barely mentioned. However, it is when Ántonia is on the page that the story comes alive and I think this is why I enjoyed the book more at the beginning than I did towards the end.
I’m glad I gave Willa Cather a second chance and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books in the future. If anyone else is considering reading Cather for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I would definitely recommend starting with My Ántonia!