Thursday, 27 April 2017

Review of 'My Antonia' by Willa Cather

'My Antonia' by Willa Cather is a story set in the early years of the 20th century in the prairie plains of Nebraska. The book is notionally the third in the author's Prairie Trilogy, but as far as I can tell the only connection is they share a theme and general setting and were written one after another within a few short years. There doesn't appear to be common characters or storyline, but I could be wrong about this as I haven't read the other two yet.

'My Antonia' is the story of Antonia Shimerda a Bohemian girl who moved from her European home to a farm on the prairie in Nebraska. The book is told by the narrator Jim Burden, and so it is also a story about him (some sections of the book don't even have Antonia in). The book follows them, and their family, friends and neighbours, from their homes on the farm to living in the nearby town of Black Hawk, and then to Jim's life away from Nebraska as he goes to study at Harvard. Other characters include the vivacious Lena Lingard, the shady Black Hawk moneylender Wick Cutter, and the Harling family who live next door to Jim while he is growing up.

The story starts with Jim, meeting an unnamed friend. "Do you remember Antonia?" one asks the other. Jim decides to write Antonia's story down, and this forms the main part of the book. Inside that story, are the stories of the individual characters what they are like growing up and what they make of their lives. Many of the characters are immigrants, including Antonia, Lena, Otto Fuchs, Tiny Soderball and Cuzak. They come from all over Europe - Austria, Bohemia, Norway, Sweden - and the story partly of an earlier generation of immigrants integrating in American society. The children of many of these characters would still be alive today, and their children and grandchildren would have spread across the country, American born and bred. Worth thinking about as much anti-immigrant feeling is alive today.

I loved this book. The rich descriptions of the Nebraska prairie was beautiful and sublime. It is not a long book - only about 230 pages - but by the end you feel at home there, and the characters feel like old friends. All the stories in the book are interesting, they draw you in and create a wonderful tapestry of life on the great plains of the mid-west a century ago. It also has quite a bit to think about in it, and the author skillfully compares the differing ways of life and philosophies on living as we find out what the characters make of their lives. The end of the story, wraps things up wonderfully too, and I went away with a warm, happy feeling and something of a "wish I was there" emotion. I really do like books that do that!

This was the second book I've read by Willa Cather, the first one being her later work 'Death Comes for the Archbishop'. I loved that one too and wasn't sure which I was going to prefer, but the last couple of chapters edged it in favour of My Antonia. My edition of the book had a relatively recent introduction which gave some biographical information on the author. She obviously put a lot of her own experiences into this book as her early life followed a similar path to the narrator, Jim Burden. Both moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were around 9 or 10, spent a year or two living on a farm before moving into a town, and both left for good in their early twenties. Willa Cather clearly knew well what she was writing about, and this authenticity, and her love for the landscape, really comes through in this book.

A truly great book, 5/5 from me.