Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: My Antonia by Willa Cather

Nebraska prairie (via)
Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 1918

It's about: Jim Burden goes to live with his grandparents in Black Hawk, Nebraska after his parents die. A Bohemian (Czech) family with a beautiful little daughter the same age as Jim arrive in town on the same train. Jim develops a fascination for this girl, named Antonia Shimerda. This book is a narration of her life as seen through his eyes.

I thought: I've only read one other book by Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, when I was in high school and didn't like it at all. I've been hesitant to pick up another of her novels since then. My mom wrote her master's thesis on Willa Cather's work and has always encouraged/pressured me to give My Antonia a chance. When I found it for free in the Kindle Store ... I knew the time had come.

Aaand I loved it. The characterization in this book is absolutely phenomenal. I especially appreciated how Cather showed Antonia develop into a strong, independent woman. Her characters are all great. However, Willa Cather is known best for the way she writes about the land and how it affects her characters emotionally and psychologically. For example:
Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.
The landscape is so much a part of this novel that it becomes a character in itself - in fact, this is probably what most people think of when they think of Willa Cather, the landscape as its character in her novels. It is at once idyllic and violent, and always lurking in the background of every scene. I liked how engaging this story was, though it didn't have a traditional plot structure - the story unfolded like the prairie itself. Lovely. An easily accessible and beautiful read.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.
Willa Cather (via)

Reading Recommendations: Our blogger friend Chris wrote a lovely little poem (which you can read here) based on his experience visiting the grave of Anna Pavelka, the woman who became Cather's inspiration for Antonia Shimerda. Chris also took the picture of the Nebraska prairie I put at the top of this post.

Warnings: One attempted (though not successful) rape scene. Pretty scary stuff.

Favorite excerpts: "There was a curious social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school. Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices who have had 'advantages,' never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new. I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them."

What I'm reading next: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion