Everyone has moments where they wish they could go back to their past, especially their childhood. Go back to places that made impressions on us, and help reconnect present selves with a former self. Waves of nostalgia wash over us, as we try to recapture a moment or a feeling.
For Jim Burden, most of his childhood nostalgia centers around Ántonia, and their love for the prairie.
Burden went to go live with his grandparents in Black Hawk, Nebraska, after the passing of his parents. Immediately, the landscape left an impression on young Jim, as did the new neighbors, the Shimerdas.
As Burden chronicles his tales from his childhood in Black Hawk, everything comes back to Ántonia Shimerda. To Jim, Ántonia represents the wild Nebraska prairie, and everything good and harsh about that land.
As someone who has never been to the American Mid-West, I found the descriptions of 1890’s Nebraska to be interesting. My Ántonia feels like the natural sequel to Little House of the Prairie, which I read as a little girl. A land both strangely beautiful, but demanding of those first settlers.
I was surprised to find out this was also an Immigrant story, as the town of Black Hawk (and the nearby farms) had both Swedish and Bohemian immigrants. Ántonia’s family is from the modern day Czech Republic, and when they first arrived, the land seemed unforgiving. But through the harsh events of Ántonia’s life, she is able to fall in love with the land around her.
Jim and Ántonia’s different backgrounds also highlight the differences between the ‘native’ and immigrant settlers of Black Hawk, especially when both characters move into town. Jim is able to get an education while Ántonia has to work to provide more funds to her family.
Some might not find My Ántonia appealing, since the book isn’t plot driven, but more a series of recollections of one’s childhood. Even though this novel is fiction, I felt like I was reading Jim Burden’s memoir. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Cather had similar experiences growing up, the nostalgia for the prairie lands of Nebraska were thick.
I’ve also heard from others that Cather’s work is ‘depressing’. I don’t know about the author’s other works, but I didn’t feel that way about My Ántonia. There are definitely some sad events in the book, and Ántonia endures many hardships, but I didn’t leave depressed. Actually, I left hopeful. Out of ashes Ántonia is able to build something beautiful for her family.
So don’t worry, this isn’t a John Steinbeck novel. (Of Mice and Men still haunts me.)
Cather also does a fantastic job with the characters of Ántonia and Jim. One, a true pioneer woman who doesn’t let a harsh life take away the fire in her soul. The other, an intelligent romantic who can’t leave Nebraska behind, even after he moves away. Both understand that the past is just as real as the present, so even though Ántonia and Jim end up living completely different lives, they are always present in each other’s thought.
*I do want to note that My Ántonia was written in 1918, and some of the sentiments reflect that time period. The only description that had me slightly uncomfortable was about an older black piano player, but thankfully it was brief.
**Also: This was for Classics Club Spin #15