This is my review of My Antonia (Oxford World’s Classics) by Willa Cather.
My Antonia – pronounced "Anton-ee-a" is a "Little House on the Prairie for adults" classic that I would not have thought to read unless required to do so for a book group. Published in 1918, this "early modern" novel forms a bridge between the old and the new. It has all the flowing style and precision of a C19 work – reminded me of Thomas Hardy – yet is pared of any unnecessary verbiage to give a vivid impression of the striking landscape of Nebraska in the late C19 when it was developed largely by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia.
We see the vast expanses of red prairie grass, "running" in the wind and the sunflowers following the bends of the country roads, perhaps where the Mormons scattered seeds as they travelled west to Salt Lake City. Based on her own childhood memories, Willa Cather has the successful lawyer Jim Burden recall his childhood, dominated by his friendship with the vivacious Antonia, daughter of a family of penniless Czech immigrants, forced by hardship and duty to give up any thought of education which would enable her to escape from a life of toil on the land. I feared the tale would be admirable but dull. In fact, it is brought to life by the varied cast of believable characters and the string of surprisingly entertaining anecdotes – the killing of a rattlesnake, dubious escapes from wild wolves, and so on.
The storyline is fragmented in structure and lacks a strong plot – yet it seems the author was deliberately experimenting with the structure. The long first "book" focused on prairie life is probably the best. The middle sections ramble through Jim's adolescence and college education. For a while we lose sight of Antonia altogether, but in the final part, the middle-aged Jim meets up with her – now a mature "matriarch" with a brood of children, still living on the land to which she has become too attached ever to think of leaving. The book questions the nature of success: despite his fine career, Jim is childless, and the people he met in his rural childhood have more "reality" for him than what he learns in his academic studies. A major point of the book seems to be that "the best days" of his life prove to be the earliest ones that he cannot recapture.
When describing his eleven-year-old self, Jim appears to be an unusually perceptive child, often slipping more into the voice of an educated mature woman – the author herself?! Although based on a real person, you may feel that Antonia is somewhat idealised as in part a creation of Jim's nostalgia. I sensed a touch of unconscious racism in the description of the blind negro pianist. You could say the ending is a little romanticised, although there is the subtle indication that Antonia's husband is a malleable man who fathers her children and allows her to live out her rural dream.
Although it is slow-paced, and the plot is fairly slight, I would definitely recommend this novel. If your version has an introduction, save it until afterwards, so as not to prejudice your reading of this evocative tale.