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Saturday, January 11, 2020

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia by Willa Cather is the third book in author’s The Great Plains Trilogy. I found that this was another near brilliant novel that had complex characters and magnificently described landscapes. Though Song of the Lark was my favorite book of the three, I thought that this novel was almost as good. These books are called a trilogy but there no connection between the plots or characters.

This story is told in first person by Jim Burden. Jim is a New York lawyer. The vast majority of the book is supposedly a manuscript written by Jim detailing his youth growing up in and around Black Hawk, Nebraska in the late 1800s.  Jim is living with his grandparents who are initially famers living outside of Blackhawk but who eventually retire and go live in the town. Jim is intelligent and thoughtful. He befriends a Bohemian immigrant girl named Antonia Shimerda. Like the women characters in the other Cather books that I have read, Antonia is high spirited and shows a degree of physical toughness. She does heavy farm work including heading cattle and seems to enjoy doing so. She is also intelligent and tends to be very optimistic. 

The book chronicles the early life of both Jim and Antonia. We initially see them as children. As they move through adolescence the story portrays how they make friends with and socialize with their peers. The story takes Jim through his collage years and through some rough times for Antonia. The young woman becomes pregnant from the man who she is supposed to marry who runs off on her. Later Antonia marries someone else. Throughout the story there is a little romantic tension between Jim and Antonia but they never pair off together. The book ends twenty years into the future when Jim and Antonia renew their friendship. 

Both Antonia and Jim are very well - crafted characters. The story is also populated by interesting minor characters that range from colorful farmhands and malicious businessmen. Jim is a great storyteller and he likes to integrate all these diverse personalities into the narrative that centers upon himself and Antonia. Throughout the tale he observes that even though he has not seen these people in years, their memories continue to influence him.

The issue that is still debated by critics and regular readers of this book is the real nature of the relationship between Antonia and Jim. A few times in the narrative they seem to edge towards a romantic connection but then back off. During Jim’s collage years it seems that he would actually ask Antonia to marry him. Instead, he realizes that he is becoming a cosmopolitan person who will spend his life in the big cities, Antonia is very much tied to the land of rural Nebraska. 

When Jim and Antonia reestablish contact years later he tells her.

‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister— anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

Like Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark, Jim becomes a person who goes beyond small town plains life. As noted above, also like Thea, at several points he mentions that throughout this time he is reminded of his younger days on the plains. He takes rural and small - town Nebraska with him wherever he goes.  Throughout the book Antonia is tied to the land. Thus, it is no surprise that thoughts of Antonia have also stayed with him. 

Throughout the story Jim is a very passive person. He is not passionate. He is not the kind of character one would find in an emotional love story. He never feels an intense love for Antonia. Yet he feels a lifelong connection with her, even after he has not seen her for years. As mentioned above, at several points in the book he does seem like he will try to initiate a relationship with Antonia but he just does not do it. At the end he seems very satisfied with just the reestablished friendship. He shows no jealousy towards Antonia’s husband who he genuinely befriends. 

Despite this, I think that Cather meant this to represent a missed opportunity. A clue to what she was trying to get at comes fairly early on the book. A young Jim and Antonia are told a story by a dying Ukrainian. The story seems to be implausible in a realistic book of this type. The story goes as follows: After the nuptial celebrations, a wedding party is traveling home on multiple sleighs through the Ukrainian countryside. The party is heading back to their native village when wolves descend on the sleighs. In an effort to fend off the wolves the bride and groom are thrown off one of the sleighs and to their deaths to lighten the load and allow the others to escape.  A Google search shows that there is no consensus as to what this story means in the context of this book.  However, some suggest that this tale is symbolic of Jim throwing away his chance to marry Antonia. This seems plausible to me. 

Like in O Pioneers! This work is filled with wonderfully crafted prose describing natural features and phenomena. In the below passage a thunderstorm that Jim and Antonia experience as children is described,

Antonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.

It is not surprising that as Jim gets older and travels the world, he feels that the locale and experiences of his youth are always with him. As the above passage indicates, Antonia is connected to these experiences. 

This book is a great read. Though not a lot of dramatic things happen, both the characters and their interactions are fascinating. The descriptions of landscapes are sublime and meld very well into the story. I have just recently discovered Cather but look forward to reading a many more of her books. 

46 comments:

mudpuddle said...

i've really enjoyed your posts on Cather... she does seem a master of the telling detail:"the felty beat of the raindrops"... i think i'll be driven to check out some of her work when next i get to the library... tx...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. Cather’s prose is one of my favorite things about her books. I would be curious as to what you thought of her books.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

It's pretty much understood and accepted today that Willa Cather was a lesbian living in the oppressive society of her time. Some critics say that the true nature of the friendship and connection between Jim and Antonia is that both were (secretly, of course) gay in a society where neither could live their true lives openly. They recognized "the outsider" in each other. Their homosexuality is why Jim was so curiously passive about maybe marrying her. And of course, heterosexual marriage was an accepted state for everyone in those times, despite sexual orientation.

Dorothy Borders said...

This brought back some fond memories. It's been years since I read any Cather. It might be time to revisit her.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - I had not run into that theory about the characters. It seems to make some sense. I wonder how the Ukrainian wolf story would fit into that one. Indeed, back then, gay folks often married out of social pressure.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy - I think that this book would stand up well to rereading.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I have really enjoyed your reviews of Cather's Great Plains trilogy of novels. I have heard it said that Jim is a stand in for the author and it kind of makes sense. Willa Cather left Nebraska, went to college, moved to NYC but the prairie never left her thoughts. Regarding the Ukranian wedding party as I understand that's based on a real event that took place in Russia 1911. Clearly it made an impression on Willa Cather and anyone else who reads the novel!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. I think that both Jim and Thea from Song of the Lark were stand ins for Cather. They both left the plains for the larger world and they both carried some of it with them

I had heard that the Ukrainian wolf story may have been based on several stories and incidents. However, as it is told in this book it seems not to be very plausible. Within this novel it is only told as a story.

Caroline said...

Wonderful review, as always Brian. Last year I read my first Willa Cather and after your review Im looking forward to more. Her landscape descriptions are so beautiful. Before reading her, I didn’t realize that she was a diverse writer. I always thought, she wrote mostly about the Great Plains but that’s not the case. I’m interested to see which one you’ll read next.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. Everything that I have read from Cather so far has been centered on the Great Plains. I will likely move on to something different from her now.

James said...

I have enjoyed your reviews of Willa Cather's novels. This one is my favorite, although Death Comes for the Archbishop is a close second. Her prose is some of the best I have ever read and as a result two years ago it was included on my list of books that I could read and re-read forever.

Judy Krueger said...

I read this many years ago and remember feeling uplifted somehow by the end.

Sandi said...

"I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister— anything that a woman can be to a man."

This is quite profound.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
Thank you for your insightful review and reminder of a book I read and savored many years ago! I wonder if I still have a copy of it somewhere?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Her prose are amazing. I might read Death for the Archbishop Soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - I would say that the end was an affirmation of human relationships.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sandi - It is profound. It really is an affirmation of close bonds between people.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. This was the first time that I read for me. But it seems that a lot of people read this when they were young.

Paula Vince said...

This sounds great, and makes it hard for me to figure out which Cather novel to read next. Sounds like another thoughtful story highlighting the chasm between urban and rural that can never be jumped, or at least not easily. The missed opportunity aspect sounds a bit like Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, and always gets us pondering. And Cather's prose is so well done, it's no doubt worth reading all of them just for that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Paula - This book and Song of the Lark really dug into the rural/cosmopolitan divide. Cather may be saying that cosmopolitanism is great, but it is best to carry a part of the rural inside of us wherever we go.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I read this years ago and really enjoyed it, but your fine review reminds me of just how well crafted her prose is. I don't remember the story about the wolves. How horrific!

I do think it's interesting how one always carries their past with them, but they can never return to it.

I see that with my parents who both left home at 18 to join the Air Force. They lived all over the world, but when they visit their home towns, the people there are rather stunted. It didn't matter when they grew up there, but now it does.

JacquiWine said...

I recall enjoying this book very much when I read it a few years ago, so it's lovely to have a reminder of it here. As you say, Cather's descriptions of the landscape are stunning, perfectly capturing the beauty and brutality of the natural world.

Lory said...

I'm glad you are reading and enjoying Cather. Her writing is wonderful. I need to do more reading and rereading!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. As I get older I see it too. The past is there and it effects us throughout life. One thing just occurred to me, many stories, especially newer ones, seem to dwell on the negative aspects of people’s pasts. For the most part, Cather dwelled on the positive.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - The landscape descriptions here are some of the best in all of literature.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - I recently discovered Cather. It seems that a lot of people read her when they were younger but still love her work.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I see this became a telemovie in 1995, with a few familiar names playing in the leads. I confess I’m not much into mainstream fiction, but this sounds like a satisfying end to the trilogy, and the author considered it her best work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I also noticed that there was a television film out there. Maybe I will give it a try.

I thought that the entire trilogy was well worth the read.

thecuecard said...

Yeah it's been a 2 or 3 decades since I read this one, so I think it would be great to reread it & see what I think about it now. I recall liking all the natural features & landscapes in this book, which took me away to the world then.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - You raise a really good point. Cather kind of built her own world with her descriptions of landscapes.

I would be curious to know what you thought if you read this book now.

RT said...

Great post! Have you read my two Cather favorites: Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Professor's House? BTW, your posting is a catalyst for my to reread Cather, so thank you!
Best wishes from Gulf coast curmudgeon at https://perfectmurders.blogspot.com/

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks RT. I have not read those Cather books. But I plan to at least read Death Comes for the Archbishop soon.

seraillon said...

Now I'll have to read The Song of the Lark.

I've very much liked all of the Willa Cather I've read, as well as the arguments that seem to spring up around her. This is nothing new, but Antonia and Jim, the one who stayed and the one who went, seem really a single representation of the dual nature of Cather herself, her inescapable ties to Nebraska and her inability to return.

The wolves scene is delightfully horrid.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - I think that you make a good point about leaving versus staying and the duality here. I also like your description of the wolf story.

baili said...

this is treasured post to me dear Brain!

i found this deeply connected to my heart because almost same central idea was laying in bottom of my soul for story i might have written someday

such soul filling relationships are externally rare in world full of people who try to bring "reason "out of everything which is thing of mind
to form such selfless connections soul is needed and truly pure one i believe
i loved this story line and specially how writer is capable to say all so magnificently

thank you for sharing it with so brevity and sublimity specially paragraphs you chose are truly amazing and worth sharing ,first one made my eyes teary !
i think of world all the time where men and women are with such strong characters exist and have power to inspire as much so they can wish to have them in their life
i am sure i will read this one :)
thank you again for being incredibly wonderful to share such great blog my friend!
blessings!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili. The connection here between Antonia and Jim is profound. It is moving.The relationship is very special.

The Liberty Belle said...

Thank you for sharing such an insightful review. Seems like my sort of book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Belle!

JaneGS said...

I am really looking forward rereading this--last time I read it was in high school, but I have enjoyed the other two books in the trilogy, which I just read recently.

I liked your comparison of Jim to Thea--I can definitely see the parallels.

I absolutely love Cather's description of the prairies.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I would be curious as to what you would thought on the second reading.

On the Thea and Jim thing, it is interesting how authors revisit themes over the course of several books.

the bookworm said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one. The descriptive writing sounds wonderful and I like that last passage you shared.
Fantastic commentary as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Cather produces some of the best prose out there.

Whispering Gums said...

Life has been busy here in eastern Australia but I've finally caught up with this post. My Antonio is one of the few books, outside Austen that I've read more than once. I greatly enjoyed your review and love that you researched that Ukraine tale. One of the things that sticks with me about this book is is sort of melancholic of nostalgic tone. Catcher is an interesting author. Not as easy to pin down as, say, Wharton.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - This is a book that stays with you. It really is sentimental in a sad way. Cather is somewhat elusive. She is very subtle.

It should never be a rush to comment on a post.

HKatz said...

I've been discovering Cather's work and also love the descriptions. Sublime is the right word for it.

The ambiguity in the relationship between Jim and Antonia sounds interesting. Also the fact that Jim is passive - is this in relationships or career-wise too? Because somehow he does end up in NY as a lawyer.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I have recently discovered Cather myself.

You raise a good question about Jim. He is not passive in his studies or intellectual life and by extension his career, , just when it comes to relationships.