Length: 1460 words (4.2 double-spaced pages)
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by Willa Cather
Author: Willa Sibert Cather, Nebraska's most noted author was born in Virginia. At the age of ten she moved with her family to Webster County, Nebraska. Many of Cather's acquaintances and Red Cloud area scenes can be recognized in her writings.
Cather wrote poetry, short stories, essays and novels, winning many awards. In 1920 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours, about a Nebraska farm boy who went off to World War I.
Willa Cather's reputation as one of America's finest novelists rests on her novels about Nebraska and the American Southwest. These novels express her deep love of the land and her distaste for the materialism and conformism of modern life.
Devoted to values such as the importance of family and the need for human courage and dignity, she created strong female characters whose sort of strength and determination had previously been attributed to only men.
My Antonia, one of Cather's best works, is an unconventional, romantic novel of prairie life. It tells the story of a remarkable woman whose strength and passion epitomize the pioneer spirit.
Jim Burden - The man narrating the story.
Antonia Shimerda -The daughter of Bohemian immigrants and the heroine of the story.
Ambrosch Shimerda - Antonia's mean brother
Marek Shimerda -Antonia's mentally disabled brother.
Yulka Shimerda - Antonia's younger sister.
Mr. and Mrs. Shimerda - Antonia's gently father who committed suicide, and her
bitter, complaining mother.
Larry Donovan - The man Antonia thought was going to marry her.
Lena Lingard - A girl that Jim grew up with and was successful.
Anton Cuzak - Antonia's husband.
The book begins with an introduction. In the introduction it tells about James Quale Burden (Jim Burden) and how the story came to be written. The introduction is written by a woman who is an old friend to Jim and who grew up in the same Nebraska town as he did. They are both now living in New York where Jim is a successful lawyer.
She tells about Jim's wife, Genevieve, who she does not like, and doesn't think she is well suited for Jim. They start talking about Antonia, who they both knew and admired, and wondering why something wasn't written about her. Months later, Jim brings her what he had written and She writes the narrative as Jim had written it.
The story begins with ten year old Jim Burden traveling from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents after losing his parents.
They live on a prairie farm and Jim enjoys the land and doing chores and being with his grandparents and their hired help. The author shows her love of the land by the way she has Jim to describe it: "The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting my pony to get me home again. . . . I used to love to drift along the pale-yellow cornfields, looking for the damp spots one sometimes found at their edges, where the smartweed soon turned a rich copper colour and the narrow brown leaves hung curled like cocoons about the swollen joints of the stem. Sometimes I went south to visit our German neighbours and to admire their catalpa grove, or to see the big elm tree that grew up out of a deep crack in the earth and had a hawk's nest in its branches"
He soon met the Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas, who had come out on the same train as he had. He soon became friends with their daughter, Antonia, whom he thought was very pretty. "I remember what the conductor said about her eyes. They were big and brown and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood. Her skin was brown too, and in her cheeks she had a glow of rich, dark color."
The Shirmadas had been conned into buying their place. They lived in a dingy, dirt floor cave and were very poor. They didn't speak English. Jim started teaching Antonia English, and she was a good learner.
Antonia's father felt that he couldn't deal with the strains of his new life and support his family so he committed suicide. She is forced to do the work of a man and turns from a gentle young lady into a man, in some ways. The elements of fun in her childhood were few and far in between. 'Antonia's life is full of disappointment and she is forced to grow up much too quickly. The road she takes is full of ditches and bends but it clears and straightens in the end.
As soon as her father is buried, Antonia realizes that she now has a heavy burden on her shoulders. Since she is one of the eldest in the family, she must now work to put food on their table. Her mother is a complainer and can't speak English, her oldest brother, Ambrosch, is strong, mean and not well liked, the second oldest brother, Marek, is mentally and physically disabled and her sister, Yulka, is still a youngster. With the help of their neighbors, the Burdens, 'Antonia is able to establish a meager living for her family. She does this by working on her farm as well as the other farms in the area. While this work is very beneficial for the family, 'Antonia is turned into a rough and wild creature.
When she is old enough, 'Antonia leaves the prairies and goes in to town to find work. She becomes what we would call today, a live-in housekeeper. She works hard and
sends all of her wages home to help her mother and siblings on the farm. The hours were long and the breaks few so when she did get to go out, 'Antonia and her friends create quite a reputation for themselves. She somehow gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and slowly begins to lose the honor and respect she worked so hard to gain. 'Antonia leaves to marry a " no-good " and comes home alone, sorrowful and dejected. Her fiancée had told her that they had been married but then ran off without her. 'Antonia later gives birth to a girl, the illegitimate child of this supposed marriage. She takes great pride in her daughter but with her birth, she loses whatever respect she had left.
Years later, 'Antonia is found in Hastings, Nebraska, married with eleven children. Her dream has come true, to have land of her own and many delightful little children running wild all over the place. She works hard and is weary but has been repaid as her wish has been fulfilled. She has her land, her family, her garden and she still has the fire of life within her.
'Antonia's life was a difficult one. The burdens that she had to carry were not meant for her shoulders. All through her life's difficulties she remained devoted to whatever family she had. Thoughts of her family always came before thoughts of herself.
"She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. . . She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions."
Jim Burden makes an important sociological observation when he notes that the town boys admire the Bohemian girls, but won't marry them; while the hard-working Bohemian women help to make their farms profitable, and the "refined' town girls don't. He then lives out this observation by marrying 'well', a woman whose wealth and family connections help establish him in business (as marrying Antonia would not - would, in fact, have prevented him from ever achieving the status he has acquired at the beginning of the book), but who brings him neither happiness nor children. Antonia, in spite of her difficulties with her family and her first attempt at marriage, does achieve a real and satisfactory life.
When I finished this book, I realized how many lessons I had learned about life. For instance, life may be hard but it's the hard times that make us stronger. It is a wonderful story of a strong woman who builds a great life out of a bad situation.