Rating: 4 stars
I chose this book for Nebraska in the US Road Trip reading challenge that The Reader’s Room ran from July to September. I didn’t manage to complete the challenge, but I’ve decided to carry on because I’m enjoying discovering new-to-me American authors. I hadn’t heard of Willa Cather. My Ántonia has a 34-page introduction in the Oxford World’s Classics edition that I borrowed from the library, which I skipped to read the novel, but then didn’t return to because I didn’t want someone else’s academic critique to spoil the book with earnest dullness. Maybe it wasn’t dull at all. (It looked dull.)
Anyway, to my hopefully not dull critique of the novel! Jim Burden, a New York-based lawyer for a railway company, encounters an old friend on a train journey across Iowa. They begin to reminisce about a woman, the Ántonia of the title, whom they both knew in Nebraska when they were young.
Burden has re-established a friendship with this woman. The friend, a writer, suggests that Burden should record his memories and impressions of her. The writer has always felt that Burden knew Ántonia better than she ever did, because she had been a young girl at the time, and Burden had more opportunities to get to know Ántonia.
So Willa Cather sets the scene for her novel of Prairie life at the turn of the 19th century. Burden’s memoir of Ántonia begins with a train journey from Virginia to Nebraska. It’s a reminder of how life has changed and yet still remains the same, and of how unfathomably large the US is.
I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day’s journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.
Burden was a ten year old orphan, leaving the Blue Ridge Mountains for the flatness of Nebraska. Ántonia was a slightly older girl, newly arrived with her family from the Czech Republic (rendered as Bohemia in the novel).
Cather’s ability to bring to life a ten year old boy on a journey into the unknown is wonderful. The descriptions of the train journey and then the wagon ride to the town of Black Hawk, which is to be Burden’s new home, are vividly visual. I was there with Burden, feeling what he felt, seeing what he saw, and liking his company a lot.
… there was nothing but land … I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete sum of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between the 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.
It’s not often that I fall in love with a book within the first dozen pages, but these opening scenes captured me completely. The beauty continues across the piece. One thing I’ve always loved about US literature, something that drew me in when I first read Steinbeck, is the sense of space American writers bring to their writing. Despite describing a time and a place where life was tough, Cather writes about the Nebraska prairies with tenderness. She brings to life the endless expanse of the unfenced land, topped by the high, soaring sky. It’s a space that I enjoyed sinking into.
The novel deals with the stream of European migrants, desperate to find a better life in this wide and allegedly wealthy land. But America has always been a land where you need to have money in order to begin that better life, and many of those Europeans arrived in the US fleeing hardship only to exchange it for more poverty. Cather shows that those who consider themselves American, despite their families having once been immigrants too, are suspicious of new arrivals, and some are willing to take advantage of their vulnerability. Plus ça change, eh?
The book reminded me of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne books and Laura Ingolls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. My Ántonia is Cather’s love song to a way of life that no longer exists. She acknowledges the hardships but reveals beauty and peace in the way of life of the prairie farmers. I know that I could never be a farmer. I’m too useless at getting up in the morning. There was an appeal in the straightforwardness of the farming life that Cather depicts, though. The reliance on the land, the community with fellow farmers, the lack of wider societal pressure to be or do something that demonstrates your ambition and worth. I love the conveniences we have in the modern world, don’t get me wrong. Living in a house built of sods doesn’t appeal. Being so cold you have to wrap yourself in animal skins doesn’t, either. I do sometimes think that something fundamental to human society has been lost, though, in our race to comfort and convenience. Ah, nostalgia!
Cather, as a woman writing from a male perspective, walks a fine line between representing male thought and allowing her female perspective room to breathe. I think she manages it well. Her female point of view comes through naturally in the women characters. Burden’s grandmother, Ántonia’s first employer Mrs Harling and her daughters, Mrs Shimerda, Lena Lingard, all show the variety of strength and weakness that women possess, and reveal how women in 19th century Nebraska coped with their menfolk. Ántonia in particular is a wonderful character. She is determined and strong, and knows her own mind. She doesn’t care whether she appears ladylike or not. For her, it’s more important to be taken seriously as a hard worker. Male privilege, Cather shows through the young Burden, is ingrained at an early age. Burden can’t bear to see Ántonia change from the beautiful young girl who arrived in America to the practical, hardy, and still beautiful young woman who earns money to support her family. Ántonia’s attitude, refreshingly, is one that says ‘tough luck’. Similarly, the judgemental attitude of society in general towards women at the time is illustrated by the rumours and gossip about young women who don’t comply with expectations. Ántonia is gossipped about and belittled for behaving like a man, while her neighbour Lena Lingard is scorned for being attractive and having men show her attention. Cather is clear that the denizens of Black Hawk view Lena as the responsible one, not the men who can’t control their lusts. Again, plus ça change. I enjoyed Lena’s attitude to it all.
“Maybe you lose a steer and learn not to make somethings with your eyes at married men,” Mrs Shimerda told her hectoringly.
Lena only smiled her sleepy smile. “I never made anything to him with my eyes. I can’t help it if he hangs around, and I can’t order him off. It ain’t my prairie.”
Lena’s story continues against a backdrop of intrigue and opprobrium, but she doesn’t care about what other people think, or what is expected of her. She is her own person, happy to be independent and in control of her own life after the difficulties of her early years.
Compliance with expectation is at the front of my mind at the moment. My conversations with my therapist are helping me to understand how the expectations placed on me (without malice) by my parents and siblings in childhood have carried through to my adulthood and are affecting how I view myself and how I present myself to others. A helpful thing happened to me when I went to one of the Manchester Literature Festival events, a talk by Joanna Moorhead about her cousin, the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. In talking about how she had got to know and love this black sheep of the family, Moorhead summed up Carrington’s driving force: she lived life free from expectation. This sounded wonderful to me, a person who has spent her life so far trying to live up to expectations, both real and self-imposed, when what I really want (what any of us really want) is to be me.
Similarly, Burden wants to feel free to be who he is. For him, escape comes in the form of education. In contrast with the women who surround him as a youth, he has privileged male access to a college education. Frances Harling, although intelligent, is limited to working as a clerk in her father’s firm. Lena Lingard relies on her industry to escape, becoming a businesswoman. Burden gets to attend the university in Lincoln and, when social distractions threaten his progress, gets to follow his tutor to Harvard.
As ever with novels written in the decades following the abolition of slavery, My Ántonia contains racial slurs against Native Americans and African Americans. As enlightened as Cather appears to have been about the autonomy of women, she didn’t have a similar level of enlightenment about the rights of people of colour. Maybe in the context of the time she was more enlightened than most, and was only using language that was common currency, but the words she employs have a different feeling now, and it’s not a sympathetic one.
My Ántonia is an honest book, though, and I’d rather a reminder of the long standing racism of Western culture than a total erasure of people of colour from the narrative.
The novel ends with Burden visiting Ántonia twenty years after they last met. His visit makes clear that what went before was not about Ántonia, was not her story, but was the story of Ántonia in relation to Burden, and about Burden in relation to her. The novel is very much Burden’s story, and I’d place the emphasis on the ‘My’ of the title.
The novel is a slim little thing, less than 200 pages long, if you ignore the notes, the chronology, the endnotes and the appendix. I took a week to read it because I wanted to savour Cather’s writing, and lose myself in the way of life and the landscape she describes so well. I enjoyed being there in a way I wouldn’t if I really was. That’s good fiction.
I’ve discovered that there’s a free version on Project Gutenberg, so you have no excuse for not reading it.