Books and Beyond

“My Ántonia” just dropped into my hands. At least that’s the way it felt to me. I’ve read it three times before (that’s what my note in the front of the book says). My copy is from the Riverside Literature Series. Plum Creek Library System has many Cather titles, including books, videorecordings, and audiobooks.

In reality, how did I get to reading Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia” this time? I’ve been studying Nebraska because of a great aunt and her family who moved to York, Neb., in the early 1880s. Her death was in 1953. As I learn about Nebraska, I get to know more about what her life was like.

The title comes from how Ántonia’s father said her name — not just Ántonia, but my Ántonia. Though he has passed by page 63, his presence is felt throughout the book, so we know how close they were. When Jimmy Burden gives his commencement speech at the Black Hawk Opera House, he tells Ántonia he dedicated it to her father (p. 150).

Her story is told by Jimmy Burden, who moves to Nebraska to live with his grandfather and grandmother when he is 10 years old. His parents had died in Virginia, and he goes west on the train with a family friend named Jake. When he leaves the train, he sees a family get off, too. He finds out later it is the Shimerdas, whom he refers to as Bohemians. We see right away and then throughout the book immigrant experiences in Nebraska in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Burden family sees differences in the Shimerda way of life, but they are always helpful and accepting. When they go to visit them the first time in their sod house, they take a sack of potatoes, cured pork, bread, butter, and pumpkin pies. The next visits are when Jimmy helps Ántonia learn English. And then several visits when Mr. Shimerda dies and the Burden family and Jake and Otto help with the funeral and the burial. By the end of Book I, we see how they all deal with differences in language, everyday life, and religious beliefs.

Descriptions of nature are everywhere in the book. Since we are just a few weeks from spring, I’ll share with you one of the pictures of spring in Nebraska:

It was a beautiful blue morning. The buffalo-peas were blooming in pink and purple masses along the roadside, and the larks, perched on last year’s sunflower stalks, were singing straight at the sun, their heads thrown back and their yellow breasts a-quiver. P. 84

One of the key chapters for me is Chapter 9 in Book II, The Hired Girls. Here Jimmy describes how strong the recent immigrants are. The women work hard, whether in the field or in a house in Black Hawk as a hired helper. They aren’t dressed in fancy clothes, but they are naturally beautiful. Since they love the life they’ve been given, their eyes shine, and the movement of their bodies communicates happiness. Their beauty is contrasted with the proper young people who dress in tight, drab-looking clothes. They sit upright and stiff in the parlor and talk only as their parents would approve.

Book III is about Lena Lingard, a dressmaker who prefers not to marry. Book IV is The Pioneer Woman’s Story. Now Ántonia has a baby and she is back on her mother’s farm because the baby’s birthfather didn’t marry her.

Book V is another favorite for me. It’s 20 years from the time when Jim Burden first met the Shimerdas, and he’s now a lawyer in New York. He gets off the train in Hastings, Neb., and takes a horse and cart to visit Ántonia, who is married with 10 children. After the visit, Jim Burden writes “The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself. . . “ (p. 240).

Reading this book as Jimmy Burden’s story works, but it’s also Willa Cather’s story.

This time reading “My Ántonia,” I didn’t look up anything written about the book. I did make a connection with Red Cloud though, the town where Cather grew up, coming there from Virginia. I called the Willa Cather Foundation, and the woman who answered was very helpful. She read Cather’s commencement speech to me.

Several years ago my husband, Howard, and I went to Red Cloud, Neb., walked the streets, and went out in the country to the Memorial Prairie. In town, we went into the Opera House where Cather gave her commencement speech when she graduated from high school in 1890.

The woman also told me that Red Cloud is having a 100th anniversary celebration this year: “My Ántonia” was published first in 1918.

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