Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

This is one of those classics I'd been meaning to read since high school and had never got around to--classic Gaps material. I finally picked it up last week because my sister had finished reading it and left a copy with me. It was a used-and-purged library-bound copy printed in the 1940s, with satisfyingly large round type, thick pages, and scattered line drawings, and the pages had that pleasant dry-mildewy smell of old library books. It all contributed to a very nostalgic reading experience.

I really enjoyed reading My Antonia, despite or perhaps because of its non-adherence to many conventions of novel structure. The story is a sketch of turn-of-the-century American prairie life, with a migrating focus and rolling cast of characters, and no particular plot arc, per se. The main character, Jim Burden, chronicles different chapters of his life from age ten on, especially chapters that intersect with Antonia, the "Bohemian" girl whose family settles in the Nebraska farmstead next to Jim's grandparents'. Together they practice English, grow up, gossip, throw themselves into the extreme physical activity of farming. They survive the hardships of prairie winters, note the habits and scandals of the motley (but largely Scandinavian) settlements around Black Hawk, and mix with other young people. Along the way, they collect the stories of the passing farm hands, the foreign farmers who left their so-distant homelands, and the tough and colorful residents of Black Hawk. For me, these side stories make the narrative really special.

I found myself coming out of the book wanting to think about a lot of its aspects, like the way your high school English teacher wanted you to think about aspects in Great Expectations or whatever other book s/he was pushing at the time. I found myself deriving satisfaction from isolating themes and trying to spot things Cather specifically wasn't saying. And, you know, very much enjoying this thinking. Which says, to me, that this book deserves to be the classic it is.

If anyone else has read and wants to discuss, leave me a comment :)


M. said...

I haven't read My Antonia since college, but I'm more than willing to shoot my mouth off about it.

One thing that struck me was the way the characters focus so strongly on the past. The immigrants are preoccupied with thoughts of the old country, Jim spends the entire novel romanticizing his childhood and young adulthood on the prairie, and so on. I'm not sure as to why they do that, though -- maybe their memories of the past are their main source of strength and identity, or maybe they just hold on to it like a security blanket because it's easier and safer to focus on than their uncertain present and future. Or maybe my own memory is blowing their reliance on the past out of proportion?

Peter and Pavel intrigued me. There's nothing in the novel to suggest that they have a homosexual relationship, but the two live together quite happily in this close, comfortably homosocial way. Maybe I'm reading too much of Cather's own life into it, but there's a certain nonchalance about the way Peter and Pavel are presented that makes their life together seem not just normal and unremarkable, but implicitly approved of by the community in which they live. It's a small part of the novel, but I liked that touch.

Shellie - Layers of Thought said...

I completely loved this book. It is one of my all time favorites - I've it read several times, a rarity for me. Each time I think I will not enjoy it as much and I am thankfully wrong each time

I was completely naive to Cather's sexuality until after I had read the book and mentioned that I was amazed at her ability to speak from the male perspective and his/her love for Antonia - and then someone told me. It was an clarifying moment for me and why I think the book works so well.

moonrat said...

M--I certainly read "homosocial" biographical notes into the book throughout, particularly in the narrative gaze toward Antonia--beloved but inexplicably inaccessible--and also in the hints of Jim's bachelorhood and the night chair he kept in his room for when his tutor came over to visit him in the evenings.

As for Peter and Pavel, I didn't read anything sexual into their relationship, but I was deeply affected by Pavel's dying story of the wolves. It was chilling, and I've repeated it to several people since I've read it.