My Antonia ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
I first read My Antonia (pronounced An-to-NEE-ah) in my youth and recently read it again. It is the venerable American classic novel by Willa Cather, first published in 1918, about life on the prairie in Nebraska in rough pioneering days. It is set in the late 1800s, when all the farm work had to be done by hand, there was no electricity yet to speak of, and cars were still mostly only a figment of the imagination. The story is told in the voice of Jim Burden, a young boy from Virginia who goes to live with his grandparents in Nebraska after his parents die. His grandparents have been farming for a long time and are fairly prosperous and comfortable for the time and place.
Jim Burden befriends a girl a few years older than he is named Antonia Shimerda, whose family has emigrated from Bohemia. They live in a mud hut in the side of a hill and don’t seem to be able to adapt to farming life on the prairie. Antonia’s father, seeing he has made a mistake to bring his family to such a hard life, commits suicide, leaving Antonia, her mother, sister and two brothers to manage on their own. Antonia has no other choice but to do the work of a man to keep her family going. She endures many hardships but survives her youth and grows into adulthood.
Eventually Jim’s grandparents give up farming and move into the Nebraska town of Black Hawk. Jim and Antonia remain friends, as she becomes a sort of servant girl in town to Jim’s neighbors, the Harlings. There is never any sort of “romance” between Jim and Antonia; they are more like brother and sister. Soon Antonia disappoints those who know her by taking up with the wrong kind of man. After she runs off with him and he abandons her, she finds herself with an illegitimate child. She bears this burden as she has all the others in her life. In later years, after Jim Burden has been away to school and becomes a lawyer, he returns to find Antonia married to a not-very-successful but kind man named Cuzak, with a large brood of children. They are happy, although still struggling.
My Antonia is steeped in time and place (isn’t that better than steeped in vulgarity?) and is about a way of life that no longer exists. Its themes are friendship, growing up, overcoming adversity, and holding onto memoires long after one has moved on. It’s one of the most readable classic American novels, for younger and older readers. There’s a reason it has endured for almost a hundred years while a lot of other books have fallen into obscurity.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp