Book Review of My Antonia by Willa Cather

I made notes on this book as I was reading it. (Caution: many spoilers.)

I am only pages away from finishing this book which was published in 1918.  It has been a dusty, dry read at times; maybe I’ve been very taken by the Nebraska fields.  There have been tragedies and characters’ stories of tragedies.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to accept these ugly intrusions into my reading as necessary or beneficial (two grotesque suicides and a brutally pointless murder).  But I’m resigned to the idea that this is real life, and we will now watch as the characters react to and live with these sadnesses and injustices.

The first half of the book draws us into the extreme hardship of the immigrant families living in sod houses.  The narrator, Jim, is a few years younger than Antonia, who he knows will probably always look upon him as a boy.  Antonia, called Tony, is a strong young woman, physically and otherwise, cheerful, optimistic, dutiful, and full of life.  Jim and Tony have moved into town—Jim to go to high school, and Tony to earn money working for another family.  For the last half of the book, I have cringed hearing about Tony joining a loose group of girls and participating in their escapades, and about Jim enjoying the company of Lena, the soft-spoken wispy “leader” of the disreputable team, all the while hoping he wouldn’t fall in step with her.

Although I was curious about what would happen to the characters, I haven’t really looked forward to reading the book each evening.  It’s as harsh and bland as the colorless landscape.  And then when they get to the easier, more colourful life living in the town, the tension has constantly risen as their morals have been compromised.  It’s interesting to see that while Jim’s upright family—and his strong home-away-from-home—stabilize him, the opposite happens to Tony, due to her strong will and insistence upon her own way in spite of others’ warnings, but also due to her family at home and the not-so-strong family she lives with.

The author has done such a marvellous job of developing the characters that I almost took it for granted.  It seems as though someone is simply narrating a true story, all completely real.  Some of the ugly characters were given to us very lovingly (Lena and Tiny), and in spite of all her hardships, some who might have been enemies (her brother, her mother) stayed dear and close to Tony’s heart forever.

I have just read the account of Tony naively entering into engagement with the slippery train conductor, and how he brought her out to Denver to marry him, but instead abandoned her and went off to Mexico.  She moved back out to her family’s farm, had her baby, and for the last year and a half has been working as hard as a man for her heartless brother.  I think I know what’s going to happen, and if I’m wrong it will be an awful experience, so I thought I’d jot down these thoughts now.

A big reason why I put this book on my “To Read” list is because Kathleen Norris (Amazing Grace) loves it, and this edition has a forward by Kathleen Norris (that I haven’t read; never read those kinds of things, just in case they give away some of the plot).  The reason I decided to read it is because the Classics eBook club featured it, and gave me the first 6 chapters to read.

Now I have finished (except for Norris’s forward), and was a bit surprised, and disappointed at first.  No, Jim doesn’t marry the young woman with the baby; he goes off to be a lawyer on the East coast, and doesn’t see her for 20 years.  (I’m disappointed; he seemed to be much more concerned for Tony than that.)  But when he does finally visit her near their old homes, she is blissfully happy with her 10 strong, mature, good-natured children and gentle husband on their farm.  It’s just so, so perfect for her.  It’s as though all the hard times didn’t matter in the end.  Jim apparently didn’t marry; I wonder why.

Willa Cather’s 1918 forward to the book essentially says that her actual friend Jim, with whom she grew up there in Nebraska, wrote down all his remembrances of Antonia, and that became this book.  Anyway, I’m glad I read it.  It keeps me aware of how easy my life is, by comparison, and makes me more grateful for the good in my life, and the comfort.

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