Saturday, 4 September 2010

My Antonia

Willa Cather (1876 – 1947) is surely one of the greatest American novelists.  Earlier in the year I read her “Death Comes to the Archbishop”, and I have just read her exquisite “My Antonia”. 

The book is set in the prairies of Nebraska from 1884 onwards.  Cather had moved there from Virginia at aged eight.  Her work is semi-autobiographical. She weaves her tale in the voice of a nameless person, a friend of the fictional Jim Burden about whose life the story is told.

“Jim” himself moves from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  He arrives by train to the settlement of Black Hawk.  Also on that train is the Shirmerda family, non-English speaking immigrants from Bohemia.   

The novel is a wondrous tale of life in “un-developed” Nebraska, and of the intersection of Jim’s life with the oldest Shimerda daughter “Antonia” (pronounced “ant-o-nee-a” with the “ant as in the name “Anthony”.) 

Cather brings to life both the beauty and the harshness of the praire, and the beauty and harshness of people. It is a tale of the good, the bad and the ugly, but  also a tale of the very good.   

By the end of “My Antonia” Jim is a successful lawyer, and Antonia is the loving mother of a brood of ten children living with her steadfast husband Mr. Cuzak on a Nebraskan farm. 

It is if course Willa’s story, told by an un-named voice, with Jim representing Willa.  It is a story of deep love and friendship.  I was sad when the book ended.

I suppose that many of my American friends were “made” to read “My Antonia” whilst in High School. If they have not done so recently I encourage them to re-visit this fabulous tale.  I urge others to read “My Antonia” for the first time.

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