Book Review: My Antonia, by Willa Cather
I've never been to Nebraska. Couldn't point it out on a map if I had to. I don't feel too bad about that, because, you know...it's not like most Americans could either. It's a typical 'flyover' state, large rural expanses, minimal population (16th by Area, 37th by population) and not much to distinguish it from the rest of the mid-west. But to those who live there, and lived there, it must be home, and home is never insignificant. Home is always unique.
Willa Cather's' My Antonia' is a heartfelt ode not just to Nebraska and the prairies, but to the concept of 'home', of youth and first love.
Through the narrator, Jim Burden and the Antonia (Shimerda) of the title, Cather constructs a story without a real plot but with a lot of story; a narrative of intersecting lives that never quite come together other than in brief, shining moments of tranquility, conflict, remorse and love.
Slowly tracing the life of the orphaned Jim through the heroes of his childhood, the harsh winters on a Prairie farm, the struggle between acquired 'class' and inherent desire for joy, offering glimpses of Antonia's struggle to settle down into an ‘American’ life, adjust to the realities of her life, the losses she faces with quiet, powerful dignity, Willa Cather paints a moving portrait of lives that were destined to grow apart but never lost their love for each other.
The supporting cast is memorable too, whether it's the old-world grace of Mr, Shimerda or his wife's loutishness, the villainous Wick Cutter or his toxic-dependent wife. She retains a special love for the 'farm girls', the 'hired hands', the ones who came from afar to make their lives in early-20th century America, and set down roots there. Tiny Soderball, the 'Bohemian Marys', Antonia and Lena Lingaard each show in their different ways, aspects of womanhood shaped by toil, cowed by circumstances, but never without hope and happiness. Antonia, of course, as the heroine stand out, but Lena too gets her moments under the sun, and both feel alive and real, portrayals of nuanced, complicated womanhood.
Lena, indolent, seductive, slandered far and wide, drawing men under her spell without even trying, but virtuous as only a woman of principle can be; Antonia, animated, beautiful, adored by one and all, fated to disgrace and strong enough to rise above it.
I've known a Lena Lingaard, I've known an Antonia, drawn from landscapes far removed from the western prairies, but no less remarkable, no less strong. Willa Cather captures their natures, their beauty, their power as she does their caprices. Perhaps they represent the country and the changing seasons; harsh and lovely in turns, pliant and stubborn in turns, but never less than magnificent.
The book ends on an open, uncertain note, the loss of innocence and childhood mitigated by the emergence of a new generation, just as spring's flowers supplant winter's bones. Yes, Jim can never go back again, for Optima dies prima fugit; in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee, but at the end, Jim Burden's Antonia still stands tall.
She is older, perhaps very little wiser, her beauty is a thing of the past, but her strength still resplendent. For she is more than a woman, just as the book is about more than what is written on the page. She is womanhood, and the earth, and nature, the loves and losses of childhood, and she remains, like My Antonia, 'battered, but not diminished'.