My Ántonia is a novel published in 1918 by American writer Willa Cather, considered one of her best works. It is the final book of her “prairie trilogy” of novels, preceded by O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark.
The author displays enormous talent with the written word. This book features these talents, but ignores much of reality. Some accounts were accurate depicting the lives of settlers who faced a landscape that could be a tormentor and destroyer, but is also presented as delightful and benign. The characters are vividly described and their relationships are well shown, but the leading characters sometimes fall short of what would be expected from their initial appearance in this work. Cather is able to bestow the gifts of poetry and eloquence, but at other times denies them an account of their courage. Throughout this book is a recurring theme of bravery, fortitude, and above all, persistence in the face of great odds.
“Willa Cather was a wordsmith of enormous talent. But wistful and sentimental, ………. At times her accounts were accurate, depicting how settlers viewed and valued their countryside. But the landscape could also be a tormenter, a destroyer.
She bestows upon (her characters) gifts of poetry and eloquence, but denies them an account of their courage, of the ordeals they faced and overcame, ……. of their bravery and fortitude.
Cather emphasizes how a “high regard for the immigrant families forging lives and enduring hardships on the Nebraska plains shaped a good deal of her fiction.” In truth, Cather gave them short shrift, dramatically underplaying the scope of their sacrifice, the harshness and rigor they endured, (instead describing) a lyrical portrait. By framing her novel as a realistic portrait, she leaves herself open to a reassessment.
A writer of great skill, Cather produced a lush, romantic work that is a superb read. As a result, however, of glossing over life in a harsh region, it does not deserve the status as a classic work but rather a secondary novel.”
From a review by Robert A. Slayton
1. Who was the person on the train with James Quayl Burden?
2. If it was the author (Cather), was she described in the book in any way? She did tell us, “he and I are old friends, but where was she?
3. How would you compare Jim’s grandmother, Mrs. Shimerda, and Mrs.Harling?
4. In what year did the story begin with Jim and Ántonia arriving in Black Hawk City?
5. How did the life of Ántonia at age approximately 43, with all those children, compare with that of Tiny and Leena?
6. Who would you trade places with?
7. Were there flaws in Ántonia’s character? Why did she run off with the train man, a person so different from Jim and other men?
8. How did Jake Marpole and Otto Fuchs shape Jim’s character?
9. Was there a moral to this story? If so, what?
10. Would you have any reason to think that Jim Burden was a wimp?
11. What did you learn through reading this book?
12 . Would you recommend this book to a friend? If so, why or why not?
13 . Which made more impact — the characters or the elements and the terrain?
First things first, all ten members of the physical Online Book Club attended the meeting on November 13, 2018. They were unanimous in their praise of the book. Several excellent points were raised, and the discussion was lively.
The initial comment dealt with the question, “Who was the woman heading west on the train at the start who was said to have commented, “where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything?” No definitive answer was arrived at. The best guess was it was the writer, Cather, who saw Jim in her mind as the character that exemplified her experiences during her youth in the west. Jim was a collection of her own experiences.
James Quayle Burden now forty years old agrees to help her write the story, but he’s not confident he can do a good job. He’ll try. As it turned out, Jim did more than try, he wrote the entire story and his friend Cather contributed nothing. But we know better. The writer on the train, Cather wrote it all. Her voice was given to Jim. Thus, the author tells her story through the eyes and imagination of a youth who she allows to complete it as an adult.
More than two dozen characters appeared in the book. A list of these characters given to each member was somewhat useful. What we were told about these characters was from their actions and not revealed by their inner thoughts. One of the members described these people as “empty”. The term “dans meubles” was offered and group was stumped. Then a member who spoke French and Italian in addition to English said this term in French means “without furniture”. The riddle was solved. The group agreed that the characters were free of accoutrement [sorry, this is my word — ed.] The metaphor is used to explain what the author intended for these people we learned about them from their actions but not their inner feelings.
Agreeing with most reviews, we thought the description of the climate and scenery was stark and painted a believable picture of what the characters dealt with.
There was never a doubt that Ántonia was the main character. She was a free spirit and indominable. Proud of her Bohemian heritage to the end, she made sure her bevy of children, eight or so, spoke their native tongue at home in honor of their heritage. This pride was evident in several others in the book including Swedes and Germans.
People were disappointed that Ántonia wanted to marry Osborne, a flim flam train man. But her image was restored by the way she kept her out of wedlock daughter resulting from her affair with Osborne. She took the child everywhere without shame, a rare behavior at the time. Then she married a solid but unexciting, city man who, she turned into a successful farmer. He provided a good home, while Ántonia worked by his side.
Two characters that stood out in a positive way were Jim’s grandparents. Two other important characters Mrs. Harley and Ántonia’s mother, Mrs. Shimerda, were polar opposites. One was a male dominated city dwelling mother and wife who was kind to Ántonia. In contrast Ántonia’s mother Mrs. Shimerda was a long-suffering shrew who carried the burden for the children and household while married to a despondent but kind-hearted husband who ended his own life. On a happier note, he never lost the love and devotion from his family.
Jim’s behavior as a young boy cast him as not expressing the hormone response of an adolescent youth when he cuddled with a slightly older Ántonia who was attracted to Jim as a companion but not in a romantic way.
Jim’s killing of a huge snake to protect Ántonia notwithstanding, young Jim came across as a bit weak. He did some work, but it paled compared to the man-like efforts of Ántonia and several of her female peers.
An unanswered question was, how intimate was the relationship between Jim and his mentor in Lincoln and later at Harvard? These two men related in a deep and meaningful way? At the same time Jim had only a platonic relationship with the glamorous Lena. Then Jim marries a dominating heiress after she is cast off by her fiancée. While they were married, Jim tolerates his wife’s independence and hinted unfaithful behavior.
When Jim visits Ántonia it is after several decades. It is likely for the last time. She is 43, mother of a brood, and married to an uninteresting but capable man.
Both Jim and Ántonia have convenient but likely loveless marriages. Jim tells us that Ántonia was his only love. Her memory spoils Jim for anyone else. We don’t know about Ántonia, but we can suspect that the things she saw in Jim, like a brother and experienced with Donavan who she probably never loved set her on a different course. The author never allowed us into the heart of Ántonia, so we will never really know.
All were satisfied with the book and our time together discussing what we had read had just read.
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