Friday, November 6, 2015

"My Antonia"
by Willa Cather
Published in 1918, “My Antonia,” written by Willa Cather, focuses primarily on the lives of two characters: the narrator, Jimmy Burden, and his childhood friend and neighbor, Antonia Shimerdas.  The strength of the novel, I believe, is its message that circumstance and absence or presence of strong character affect substantially the direction of a person’s life.
Spanning approximately 30 years, the novel opens with Jimmy, aged ten, being transported from Virginia to the farm village of Black Hawk, Nebraska, at an unspecified year in the late 1800s.  His parents have died.  He is to live with his father’s mother and her husband on a farm 20 miles from town in the only wooden house on the rugged, undeveloped plain.  Other farm residences are sod houses and dugouts.  Aboard the train transporting Jimmy is an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, from Bohemia.  Their destination is land next to Jimmy’s grandparents’ property.  The Shimerdas’s residence is little more than a cave.  Close to arriving at his grandparents’ house, Jimmy reflects: “The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither.  I don’t think I was homesick.  If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter.  Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.  I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.”
Jimmy is fortunate.  His grandparents are of strong character.  Both are wise about people.  Both are empathetic.  Jimmy has a secure foundation that permits him to develop with little handicap.  The Shimerdas family is not fortunate.  They do not speak English; they have been swindled in their purchase of their property; two of their family members are flawed individuals.  Mrs. Shimerdas has forced her cultured husband to bring the family to America because “America big country; much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.”  She is a complaining woman who feels entitled to receive, even demand the assistance of others.  She is fortunate that Jimmy’s grandparents are compassionate people.  The grandmother comments, following one of Mrs. Shimerdas’s discontented visits, “No, I wouldn’t mourn if she never came again.  But, you see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in ‘em.  It makes a woman grasping to see her children want for things.”  The other flawed family member is Antonia’s older brother Ambrosch, to whom Mrs. Shimerdas and Antonia defer, “though he was often surly with them and contemptuous toward his father.”  Twice during Antonia’s reversals of fortune after she is no longer a child – her father is deceased – Ambrosch utilizes her as the farm’s sole laborer rather than hire help.  Later, he hires her out to work for other farmers.  When she works as a housekeeper in town (arranged by Jimmy’s grandmother), he takes her wages.
Nearly four years older than Jimmy, Antonia has great potential.  She is intelligent, perceptive, hard-working, and kind-hearted.  She possesses a natural spark that attraacts good and bad people to her.  Jimmy is captivated by her, as a young boy and as a maturing young man.  Late in the book he tells her, “The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it.  You really are a part of me.”  “You’re here,” she responds, in her memory and heart, “like my father.  So I won’t be lonesome.” Their enduring friendship is extremely beneficial to both.
Unlike Jimmy’s favorable circumstances, Antonia must suffer being raised by a dysfunctional mother and selfish brother.  Family poverty does not permit her to attend school.  She is judged unfairly by prejudicial townspeople concerned about the morals of immigrant daughters hired to work in town.  Male admirers attempt to take advantage of her.  Her strength of character enables her to persevere and ultimately prevail.
I appreciated this novel additionally for its historical content.  The author knows her material. 
First, there is the description, providing a genuine sense of place.  Upon seeing it for the first time Jimmy “felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.  The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up.  The there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”  And, later, “The road ran about like a wild thing, avoiding the deep draws, crossing them where they were wide and shallow.  And all along it, wherever it looped or ran, the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms.  They made a gold ribbon across the prairie.  Occasionally one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time to his bites as he ate down toward them.”
The author knows also small-town prejudices.  Most of the early farmers during Jimmy’s early years living on his grandparents’ farm and later in their house in town were immigrants.  “If I told my classmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly.  What did it matter?  All foreign people were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English.  There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia’s father.  Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all ‘hired girls.’”
Willa Cather tells us that, because of the extensive manual labor they had performed on their parents’ farms, the “hired girls” were far healthier than the town girls and, therefore, more attractive.  They were also more natural in expressing their appreciation of simple pleasures, such as their enjoyment of dances and picnics.  This behavior led mothers in the town to consider them not only ignorant but immoral.  While Antonia was working in town for the family next door to Jimmy’s grandparents’ house, she reveled in the enjoyment of dancing at the local fire hall.  This led to considerable town criticism, which, in turn, led to her eventual dismissal.  Again, the importance of a person’s circumstance.  Because Jimmy had lived near these immigrant daughters, he knew them well enough not to fall into the trap of conventional prejudice.  If fact, he deliberately sought their company, shunning the attention of town girls his age.  This behavior led to townspeople being critical of him.  His liberal-minded grandmother tells him, eventually: “People say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain’t just to us.”
Another nugget of information that the author provides is that the “hired girls” sent their town earnings back to their parents to help them keep and develop their farms.  Consequently, the foreign farmers “were the first to become prosperous.  After the fathers were out of debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbors – usually of like nationality, -- and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.”
A third reason for my appreciation of this book is that the author presents well-defined secondary characters.  For instance, two very likable hired hands employed by Jimmy’s grandparents leave for the West when the family moves into town.  They are never heard from again.  The money-lender of the town, a despicable person, is married to a shrew of a wife whose face makes babies cry.  They stay together because they enjoy too much their nasty arguments.  Lena Lingard, one of Antonia’s “hired girls” friends, becomes a skilled dress-maker.  She starts a business in Lincoln, where Jimmy attends the University; they become warm-hearted friend.  Sometime after he graduates, she moves to San Francisco to become an even more successful business woman.
My Antonia is not the type of novel that modern readers are accustomed to reading.  Conflict does not leap out at you from nearly every page.  It has more the pace of actual life.  Minor problems come and go.  We get to glimpse the lives of a variety of people in addition to those of Jimmy and Antonia.  Our understanding of what advances or retards a person’s progress and self-satisfaction in life is reinforced.  My enjoyment of this book crept up on me.  I see why it is considered a well-regarded early American historical novel.