My Antonia by Willa Cather
Scrawled across a blank page at the beginning of My Antonia is Virgil’s quote in Latin. “Optima dies… prima fugit”, meaning “in the lives of the mortals, the best days are the first to flee”. Childhood memories are what My Antonia is all about… beautiful, irreplaceable childhood memories.
My Antonia is the quintessential tale of life on the American prairie in the early 1900s. Told in the first person by Jim Burden, he begins the story with his memory of traveling to Nebraska at the age of 10. Jim goes there to live with his grandparents after tragically losing both his parents.
Coincidentally traveling on the same train to Nebraska is a family of Bohemian immigrants who settle on the neighboring farm. Antonia Shimerda is several years older than Jim and though she does not speak English, they immediately strike up a friendship that has a powerful and everlasting influence on Jim’s life.
Life in the wilds of the heartland was far different from Jim’s home town in Virginia, and even more remote from the Czech Republic where Antonia was born. Together as innocent and curious children, Jim and Antonia embrace their new lives with joy and enthusiasm. It is obvious from the title My Antonia that what they share is a very private personal and exclusive experience- a connection that regardless of the passing of time and distance between them- it will never be broken. Jim will forever love Antonia.
The prairie drew people from all walks of life: Scandinavians, Bohemians, Russians, Norwegians, and Germans as well as American citizens who were weary of life on the east coast. And like one big family through good times and bad, aiding each other through crisis and sharing life’s joys, they changed the cultural climate of the mid-west.
In 1882 when Willa Cather was 9 years old, her family moved to a farm in Nebraska. Her descriptions of the primitive lifestyle and hardships endured are authentic. Everything you have imagined and more…. hard labor which included young children working the farm, dirt floors, one room school houses, children running barefoot in all weather, 4 and 5 siblings sharing bedrooms, long harsh winters of frigid temperatures with howling winds and snow drifts as tall as a man.
But the summers- with the beauty and enjoyment of the natural environment- was divine… a fantasy playground for children. A fertile oasis; meadows, orchards, and acres of productive farm land. “Everywhere as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass… giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dead vines… the light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left…”.
Through her charming coming-of-age tale, Willa Cather reminds us of the value of old friends. the beauty of childhood memories, and the stark reality of how much America has changed in the past 100 years.
My Antonia is a wonderful book that is aging like good wine… mellow, rich and full-bodied- a unique and true American classic.
Rated 5 Stars
All contents © 2015 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.