My Antonia
by Willa Cather

Review by Edward Tanguay
April 2, 1996

After Tom Jones, this book reads like a kid's journal, especially the beginning with its strong appeal to the sights, sounds, smells, how words are formed, first impressions, and an innocence of the adult world. You feel as if you are looking at the world from the height of the kitchen table top. After the initial shock from the style, topic and genre change from Tom Jones (is there anything these two books have in common?), and I really enjoyed settling down into the small town, Nebraska life.

I liked My Antonia because it brought back memories:

. . . to speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one's brain.

Presumably we are to hear about the memories of Antonia, but we get much more. We get a lot of Jim, we get wonderful stories (the Russia wolves story was the best!), we get a remembrance of small town life, and a picture of Nebraska. No longer for me is the only noticeble thing about Nebraska "that it was still, all day long, Nebraska." When I think of Nebraska from now on, I will think of Antonia and Jim and the prairie and the Bohemian and Norwegian immigrants that made that part of the country colorful.

This is a book about women. Even Jim had feminine overtones; in fact, I don't think Cather fully disguised herself as the narrator of this book. Apart from a few of Jim's blurts about love to Antonia (which seemed odd and out of place) and a comment about love regarding Lena, oh, and a couple kisses here and there, he could have just as easily been a woman called Sue and I wouldn't have known the difference. What I really loved was that the short introduction told us that Jim was married to a women he had met in the East which effectively prevented romantic predictions throughout the book--you knew from the beginning that Jim wasn't going to grow up to marry any of the women in the story. This freed you to enjoy the book as a simple portrait of Nebraska, its people, and its small town life. Back to women, all the women in this book are strong--aren't they?--I mean, Antonia works on the farm in herculean fashion prodded like a horse by her thick-headed brother, Grandmother commands an orderly household as well as Mrs. Harling, who is exceptionally strong-willed. Both Lena and Tiny go onto become successes far above what one would have expected given what they started with. And Mrs. Shimerda is a tart, little shrew that won't give up and who is determined to give her children a good start in America. The men all play secondary roles and pop in and out of the general plot. Even Cutter, who does the most action and is the perpetrator of the book's only murder, is just a comic relief figure. The rest of the men have no fire behind them: Grandpa gets conservative; Otto and Jake whish off before half the book is over, Peter and the other Russian die off or leave the story, Cleric goes off to Boston, Donovan is a loser and probably went off to Mexico. The women are the ones who move this story.

I enjoyed the Harlings house! It's the kind of house you remember as a kid where everyone in the neighborhood went because they had so many children and life was always the fullest there.

Cather seemed to use many characters as foils to pronounce the characterstics of other characters. For instance, Donovan is thrown in to emphasize the virtuous qualities of Antonia. Jim's wife is introduced at the beginning to amplify his nostalgic love of the country and his childhood past. The town girls are shown as "round shouldered and flat chested" to highlight the flashy, dancing immigrant girls.

I liked the description of Lena at the play! It fit to her character and makes you want to go to a play with her yourself:

I liked to watch a play with Lena; everything was wonderful to her, and everything was true. It was like going to revival meetings with someone who was always being converted. She handed her feelings over to the actors with a kind of fatalistic resignation.

I liked the twice-occuring theme that we don't lose people when they die or go away, here, when Jim visited Antonia after she had her child:

"Of course it means you are going away from us for good," she said with a sign. "But that doesn't mean I'll lose you. Look at my papa here; he's been dead all thse years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life. I talk to him and consult him all the time. The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him.

I liked the description of student life when Jim when off to college ("My bedroom, originally a linen-closet, was unheated and was barely large enough to contain my cot-bed, but it enabled me to call the other room my study"). It's real.

Cather's descriptive power is brings up many images of both people and nature. Here is the description of the lively Negro piano player:

When he was sitting, or standing still, he swayed back and forth incessantly, like a rocking toy. At the piano, he swayed in time to the music, and when he was not playing, his body kept up this motion, like an empty mill grinding on.

and when he was young (!):

If Miss d'Arnault stopped practising for a moment and went toward the window, she saw this hideous little pickaninny, dressed in an old piece of sacking, standing in the open space between the hollyhock rows, his body rocking automatically, his blind face lifted to the sun and wearing an expression of idiotic rapture.

Cather can also describe moments well, as when Otto writes home:

Then Jake and I played dominoes, while Otto wrote a long letter home to his mother. He always wrote to her on Christmas Day, he said, no matter where he was, and no matter how long it had been

since his last letter. All afternoon he sat in the dining-room. He would write a while, then sit idle, his clenched fist lying on the table, his eyes following the pattern of the oilcloth. He spoke and wrote his own language so seldom that it came to him awkwardly. His effort to remember entirely absorbed him.

And a poignant explanation of why Mr. Shimerda died:

But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer.

Cuzak's way of looking at people from the side somehow lets you know him almost completely, simply from this one quirk in his behavior:

As they went up the hill he kept glancing at her sidewise, to see whether she got his point, or how she recevied it. I noticed later that he always looked at people sidewise, as a work-horse does at its yokemate. Even when he sat opposite me in the kitchen, talking, he would turn his head a little toward the clock or the stove and look at me from the side, but with frankness and good nature. This trick did not suggest duplicity or secretiveness, but merely long habit, as with the horse.

I've been waiting for spring here in Berlin, and really enjoyed Cather's description of spring coming to the prairie and how you can feel it in the air and all around you:

There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only--spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, thin the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind--rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring.

And growing up in Colorado, my family and I used to pull our lawn chairs out on the East porch in summer afternoons to watch the magnificent thunder storms that would pass through. The following is the best description of one of those I have ever read!

All the nights were close and hot during that harvest season. The harvesters slept in the hayloft because it was cooler there than in the house. I used to lie in my bed by the open window, watching the heat lightning play softly along the horizon, or looking up at the gaunt frame of the windmill against the blue night sky. One night there was a beautiful electric storm, though not enough rain fell to damage the cut grain. The men went down to the barn immediately after supper, and when the dishes were washed, Antonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyward.

Reading this book stirred a lot of memories of my own small town childhood in the American West, and one thing Cather reminded me of in this book is that memories are something solid, something that you can keep forever:

Memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.

Edward Tanguay

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