On my 2016 Bookish Goals and Resolutions post, one of the things that I decided to accomplish this year is to read at least one classic a month. Well, uhmmm let’s just say that I tried to accomplish it but I really can’t put my head into reading one. It’s not that I do not want to read them, it’s just that I was always in no mood to read a book in that genre despite having it all planned. When I finally decided to get a book in my classics shelf, there’s always that “other” book tat catches my attention veering my focus away.
But guess what, the winds of change finally came and I suddenly became in the mood for that classics vibe. I know that it’s quite sad that it’s already November and I’m just starting my plans that I was supposed to start last January but as a person who doesn’t DNF books, good timing is always to be considered. (Being hard to myself and forcing myself to read books that I know I won’t have the heart in reading won’t just do me any good.) And I picked up My Antonia by Willa Cather. The reason being was, I kept seeing this book’s different editions every time I visit secondhand bookshops in my area. Quite a shallow reason, I know, but whenever I see this book on various occasions, I feel like it’s calling me to read her. So I finally decided to give in.
“That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
― Willa Cather, My Ántonia
By the way, I’ve been reading the title of this book wrong all this time. Anton-ee-ah and not ann-TON-ya, that’s the first thing that I learned from this book. That’s the Bohemian (Czech) way.
The book follows the story of Antonia Shimerda, a European immigrant, in the prairies of Nebraska. Antonia’s life is told through the words of her childhood friend Jim Burden, who was made to stay with his grandparents after the death of his parents. Through Jim’s eyes, the author was able to capture and me to successfully feel the growth of Antonia in the book. Being both newcomers in a new land helped them easily connect to each other. Readers will then follow the hard life of Antonia in the prairies living with her unhappy father and ungrateful mother, to her being a farm helper, to being a hired worker in a nearby town and to being a radical women. And to Jim’s life in the prairies that him and Antonia explored, to his adolescent life in the town where his grandparents decided to retire, then his college life in Nebraska and then to Harvard.
I like how the book was structured in a way that it became like a story within a story. The book starts with Jim, who is now a lawyer, and his unnamed friend travelling by train across Iowa talking about a girl they both once knew before, the girl being Antonia. Both decided to write down their memories of Antonia. What Jim wrote about Antonia is what followed next in the novel. The book is divided into sections that covers a part in Jim’s life. The book follows their adventures as they grow up in a place where red seas of prairie grass became the normal background. From Jim teaching Antonia how to speak English, from watching the seasons change, to watching an electric storm on top of a chicken roof to fighting off a snake to eventually letting each other know their feelings for each other. A love that on Jim’s part never ceased even until their distance from each other grew apart as years go by. Their life converge and diverge in different parts of the story despite them not being together.
“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”
― Willa Cather, My Ántonia
Simply written but emotionally driven, I like how Cather provokes emotions by her simple prose. My usual fear when I read a classic is how readable it would be but I am glad that this book is really readable. It’s evocative and the book is very successful in showing the uniqueness of its characters. The characters that you’ll meet while reading this book are characters that you’ll surely not forget for a long time as they were depicted so realistically. How she was able to connect the characters and the changes that they have undergone as the story progress is so engaging. Antonia was depicted in the book as this determined character full of of courage and wit. She is simple yet unpredictable. She is complex yet desirable. Though the ending just made me question her decisions in life.
What I enjoyed most about this book is the vivid description of the landscape. This book encapsulates one of the most detailed description of a setting that I read. Her descriptions are long but not to the point that they make the book dragging. I hate it when authors do that. I like how this book made the description so simple yet fascinating, making you want to read more of it.
Take this paragraph as an example of that prose treat:
“The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Ántonia said, the whole world was changed by the snow; we kept looking in vain for familiar landmarks. The deep arroyo through which Squaw Creek wound was now only a cleft between snowdrifts — very blue when one looked down into it. 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 few little cedars, which were so dull and dingy before, now stood out a strong, dusky green. The wind had the burning taste of fresh snow; my throat and nostrils smarted as if some one had opened a hartshorn bottle. The cold stung, and at the same time delighted one. My horse’s breath rose like steam, and whenever we stopped he smoked all over. The cornfields got back a little of their color under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crusted 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.”
The book is a study about the struggles and successes of immigrants in a new land. In an honest way, Cather’s observance of that era follows women working as hard as their male counterparts tilling the land, their struggles during the hard winter curling up in their dugouts, the language barrier that became a way for them to be easily cheated upon. On the other side, the book also offers a picture of celebration to the successes of immigrants who persevered in a new land, the realization of their dreams and hopes in a place where they believe opportunities were infinite. It’s a genuine examination of the brave souls who fought for survival.
“Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”
― Willa Cather, My Ántonia
Overall, I like this book. It made me re-ignite my interest in reading classics. 4 stars out of 5. 🙂
Have you alsa already read My Antonia or any of Willa Cather’s books? What your favorite classics? Let me know your thoughts. 🙂
Author: Willa Cather
Part of a Series: Yes
Release Year: October 1994 (first published 1918)
Publisher: Dover Publications
No. of Pages: 192 pages
About the Author
Wilella Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virgina (Gore) in December 7, 1873. Her novels on frontier life brought her to national recognition. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours (1922), set during World War I. She grew up in Virginia and Nebraska. She then attended the University of Nebraska, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter moving to New York City for the remainder of her life. She traveled widely and often spent summers in New Brunswick, Canada. In later life, she experienced much negative criticism for her conservative politics and became reclusive, burning some of her letters and personal papers, including her last manuscript. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author’s total accomplishments. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 73 in New York City.