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 :)