I finished reading Willa Cather’s My Antonia two days ago and I wanted to wait and assimilate my thoughts before I began blogging about it. My Antonia fell very neatly into two my reading events for December – The Classic Club Spin #8 and heavenali’s Willa Cather Reading Week. When my friends from blogosphere got to know in my previous post that this was in my reading plan, there were lots of good words and encouragement about a book that seemed to be universally liked! Needless to say this added to my angst…I am not too fond of hail the frontier kind of books…I love history but somehow the frontier things, maybe because it has been made so hackneyed and clichéd by popular culture makes me wary. Adding on top of that was my experience that if a book is excessively liked, I will end up NOT liking it; case to the point, my readings of Madame Bovary and Rebecca.
However there was much support and such strong belief among the people I really respected, about this book that I could not give the it up and I ventured forth.
“My Antonia” begins with a short introduction by the author about Jim Burden, now a successful lawyer and humane person, who as a boy grew up in Nebraska’s frontier town and country and whose close association with Antonia, made it fitting that it is his story of Antonia is shared with the public
The story then opens with a 10-year-old Jim Burden travelling to Nebraska to live with his grandparents after the death of his parents. On the same train, the conductor lets Jim and Jake, the ranch hand entrusted with getting Jim to Nebraska, that a family from Bohemia is also travelling to the same town of Black Hawk and no one in the family could speak any English, except for the little girl, who could hammer together a few words and was a few years older to Jim. The Shimerdas from Bohemia are Jim Burden’s closest neighbors, come to make their fortune in the new land through farming. On behest of Mr. Shimerda, Jim and his grandmother began to teach Antonia. Their days of childhood is surrounded by games and nature and sunshine and though the Shimerdas are struggling to gain their foothold in the new country, Antonia is the companionship of Jim blossoms into a vivacious, strong girl with sensitivity and delicacy. However the idyllic days come to a halt when Mr. Shimerda commits suicide, grieving over the loss of his place in society and the loneliness of the new country. Antonia then goes to work for her brother, doing hard farm labor, while the Burden’s move to the town of Black Hawk, retiring from their farm. Mr. and Mrs. Harling are their new neighbors and under the influence of Mrs Burden, Antonia starts working in the kitchen for Mrs. Harling. She is much-loved and treated as a family member until an inevitable break comes in this relationship. Antonia’s life then takes on various different paths until takes her almost to the very edge of the precipice, till life comes back to a full circle!
On the face of it, it is indeed a Pioneerish novel, but there is just so much more to it! The characters more than the plot moves this story forward and there is a whole ensemble of this cast, each more memorable than the other; each holding a place in the reader’s heart. Jim Burden is a wonderful, kind generous boy who grows up to be a down to earth generous man. Men like that with honor and care for others are more found in books than in life and more is the pity!!! Naturally the protagonist Antonia is a lovely, courageous girl full of life and though her life chances are often stunted by various events in her life, her duty and her principles raises her from the ordinary. But it’s not just Jim Burden and Antonia’s character that holds you spell-bound, but a host of others as they flit through the lives of these two – the kind and noble Otto Fuchs and Jake Marpole, the very distinguished and kind Josiah and Emmaline Burden and for all her faults Mrs.Harling. You love these characters and wish you had the honor of knowing them all. One of the underlying trait of all Willa Cather’s character is generosity – the ability to help not only when convenient, but even in your extreme distress, if others are in need, you lend a hand. May be it was part of the pioneer culture, may be it was the then sparsely populated difficult land that forced men to be generous towards each other, for if they did not look out for each other, who would have? The land and its culture comes out racing through the book…you can see, hear and even feel Nebraska. There are some lovely and lyrical description of the land and her seasons that takes your breath away!! But most of all I liked and loved the comradery between Jim Burden and Antonia. In today’s day of tagging all relationships and constantly placing a sexual relation in the mix, it’s refreshing to read of a bond of love and friendship and comradery between two people of opposite gender that went beyond the clichéd definitions of a relationship. The relation between Jim and Antonia was so much deeper and closely linked to the very land where they grew up and I am so very impressed that Ms. Cather in an age way before our times where even now friendships between men and women is looked at with skepticism, could not only fathom but also beautifully evolve a rich relationship of depth and platonic love. It is truly brilliantly done!!
Now I know all my friends were right. As always, a big thank you to Ali, Stefanie, Jane and Cleo for encourging me to read this book!!! I am so glad to have listened to all of you once again and to have read this book!!