First published in 1918, My Ántonia is a story of the American Midwest, of the pioneers and European immigrants who settled in the prairies in the late 19th century. The novel is narrated by Jim Burden, a New York-based lawyer who has documented his memories of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian girl whose family moved to Nebraska when Jim was a young boy. More than any other person Jim could remember from his childhood, Ántonia seemed to represent the prairies, both the tough conditions of the land and the essence of the people who lived there. In other words, she embodied the resilience of the pioneers’ spirit.
The novel itself is divided into five books, each one dealing with a different period in Jim’s life. As the story opens, the recently orphaned Jim is travelling by train from Virginia to Nebraska to begin a new phase of his life with his grandparents. He is ten years old. Also travelling to Nebraska are Mr and Mrs Shimerda and their four children having just arrived in America from their homeland of Bohemia. During the journey, Jim befriends fourteen-year-old Ántonia (the Shimerdas’ second child) and is intrigued to discover that the Shimerda family are moving to a neighbouring property, the one closest to his grandparents’ farm. Before long the two youngsters are firm friends, spending time together whenever possible. As Ántonia is bright and eager to learn, Jim teaches her to speak English while they explore the countryside, noting the way it changes from one month to the next.
The first snowfall came early in December. I remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal; the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last; the little pond was frozen under its stiff willow bushes. Big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing into the red grass. (pg 39)
The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. […] The tree tops that had been gold all the autumn were dwarfed and twisted, as if they would never have any life in them again. […] The cornfields got back a little of their colour under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crushed in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind. (pg. 40)
Nebraska is a land of blistering summers and biting winters, and the first year takes its toll on the Shimerda family, Ántonia’s father in particular. A quiet and dignified man by nature, Mr Shimerda has no experience of farming or manual work (back in Bohemia he was a musician). As a consequence, he is desperately lonely and homesick for his homeland. Moreover, the Shimerdas’ new home is terribly run down – it is frequently described as a ‘cave’ or ‘hole’ – and in spite of some help from their neighbours, the new arrivals struggle to get by. After paying over the odds for their land, they have little money to spare for food. If the Shimerdas can make it through to the spring, then they can plant a garden and buy some chickens, maybe even a cow. After a truly devastating winter for the family, the responsibility falls on Ántonia and her older brother Ambrosch to work the land as they attempt to make a go of their new life in Nebraska. While Jim looks forward to the prospect of an education at school, Ántonia must work the fields; she is as strong as any young man.
A couple of years later, Jim and his grandparents move to the local town of Black Hawk where Jim can attend school. On her arrival in town, Jim’s grandmother persuades her neighbours, the Harlings, to employ young Ántonia as a housekeeper. Once again, the two youngsters are living next door to one another and able to spend time together in the evenings. This section of the novel is bright and optimistic; for the most part, Ántonia is a conscientious worker, and she fits in well with the Harling family, playing with the young children and keeping them amused as far as possible.
One of the most interesting aspects of this section of the narrative is Cather’s focus on ‘the hired girls’, the Bohemian and Scandinavian teenagers who were sent to the town to work in some form of service. Jim reflects on the curious social system at play, whereby at first these country girls had to find jobs to help their families to pay off their debts or to make it possible for their younger siblings to attend school. In many ways, their experiences – both on the prairies and in service – made these girls more rounded than their younger brothers and sisters.
Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new. (pg. 109)
In time, this decision to send their daughters out to work in service helped the foreign farmers to become prosperous more quickly than several of their native-born peers. Many American farmers were just as hard-pressed for money as their immigrant neighbours but were too proud to allow their daughters to go into service. If the girls couldn’t get positions teaching at one of the local schools, they simply sat at home in poverty instead.
In the next book, we follow Jim as he continues his education in Lincoln where he meets up with Lena Lingard, one of the Scandinavian hired girls who was friendly with Ántonia back in the town. Having trained as a dressmaker in Black Hawk, Lena now runs a successful business of her own in Lincoln. Once again, Cather touches on the developments within society at the time as Lena is a portrayed as young, independent, self-made woman with no desire or need for a husband to support her. It’s one of several contrasts in the novel: the experiences of the immigrant settlers vs those of the native-born farmers; life in the country compared to life in the town; opportunities for the educated vs those for the uneducated; a family’s expectations of their daughters vs those of their sons. There are many more.
For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel. Cather’s descriptions of the landscape and the natural world are simply stunning; she perfectly captures that blend of beauty and brutality, the blossoming of nature within a fickle environment. My one niggle relates to the somewhat episodic nature of the narrative. For me, the story feels most alive when Ántonia is in the frame (either directly or through another character’s observations). As we follow Jim, there are times when he is apart from Ántonia, and while certain elements of these sections of the novel are interesting (the social observations, for example), I have to admit to missing the luminosity of Ántonia’s presence when she is absent. Nevertheless, this is a fairly small criticism, one that certainly wouldn’t stop me from reading another of Cather’s books. (I’m already thinking about O Pioneers!). Also, there are some fascinating stories-within-stories in My Ántonia, particularly the various backstories and tales from the past. (Along with several other characters in the novel, Ántonia is a great storyteller.)
By the time we reach the final section of the book, a good thirty years have passed since Jim first met Ántonia, and he returns to Nebraska to see her again. Life has been hard on Ántonia, and yet the qualities that shine through are her optimism and determination, her unquenchable spirit and ability to survive. I’ll finish with a quote that captures a glimpse of this.
She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
[…] She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races. (pg. 186)
My Ántonia is published by Oxford World’s Classics; personal copy