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.