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.

O Pioneers!

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Can someone please hook me up to a catheter of Willa Cather? Such a great introduction with this slender novel of Alexandra Bergson’s conquering the prairie of Nebraska. We begin in tough times, deep winter and a sick father who tells his sons to pay attention to their sister (Alexandra) when he’s gone. She manages the farm in his absence, going through lean years and after investigating and talking to other farmers, buying up as much land as she can to her brothers’ dismay. Her childhood friend Carl’s family goes bust, sells her their farm as they flee for Chicago for work (he becomes an engraver). Everything booms wonderfully under her guidance, she makes her brothers rich and her own success far overwhelms theirs. She sends younger brother Emile off to college, and he eventually returns a polished man, desperately in love with their married neighbor, Marie. Carl comes back and stays a month, Alexandra suffers at the hands of her brothers who thinks it looks improper. After a tongue lashing by them, Carl flees to prove his fortune, to return a few years later to comfort Alexandra in her mourning of Emile’s death (shot with Marie by her husband). Beautiful depictions of the prairie, along with a mournful look at city life described by Carl:

When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.