My Ántonia

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I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to this classic, but it’s finally done. Beautiful story about growing up in Nebraska, both on a farm and in town. The “introduction” sets the stage, details that the author (Cather) is on a train ride with an old friend when the topic of Antonia comes up, and they challenge each other to write their recollections of her. Jim Burden’s manuscript is delivered to the author’s NYC apartment many months later, which is the story, My Ántonia, that follows.

Jim arrives by train to live with his grandparents, both his parents dead and buried back in Virginia. On the same train, a Bohemian family that includes Ántonia, along with her sad violin-playing grandfather who ends up shooting himself during the first bleak winter that the family is ill-prepared for. The descriptions of the surrounding area are lush, red grasses swaying, huge rattlers lurking, sunsets illuminating a plow left in the field. The story follows the unlikely success of Lena Lingard, whom everyone assumed would get knocked up but who escapes to Lincoln and sets up a very successful dress shop. It’s in Lena’s mouth that Cather puts the best speech against marriage in the book:

“Why I’m not going to marry anybody. Didn’t you know that?… it’s mainly because I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.”

Everyone loves Ántonia, but she shows the worst judgement in men, running off to marry a guy who works for the train company who actually had lost his job, so he took all her money, got her pregnant, didn’t marry her and left. She comes back home to raise her daughter and later marries a fellow Czech and bears zillions of kids to him and helps grow the farm.

Jim goes off to college to study, first at U of Nebraska and then follows his teacher to Harvard, then to law school. He runs into some of the Nebraska farm girls that were successful in San Francisco, and eventually returns to see how time has ravaged Ántonia’s physical appearance but not her spiritual energy.