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Saturday, August 22, 2015

My Antonia

My ÁntoniaMy Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book as part of the Cambridge, MN, Public Library reading group.

I used to live in Sioux City, IA, right on the Nebraska border. I've driven west on Interstate 80 through Nebraska, which is the only interstate in Nebraska outside the Omaha-Lincoln metro area. There is a lot of nothing out there. You can drive for miles and miles and not see anything but fields. Its not much better off I-80. I thought of this when Willa Cather described the Nebraska plains in My Antonia. (Because of the restraints of this program, I've eliminated the diacriticals and accents.)

My Antonia is Willa Cather's 3rd novel about her time in Nebraska. It is told through the perspective of Jim Burden, who was sent as a boy from Virginia to Black Hawk, Nebraska to live with his grandparents. He worked on a farm in the mid-19th century. While there, he meets the Shimerda family from Bohemia, and their daughter, Antonia. Jim is enlisted to teach Antonia English. Life on the farm was hard, and the Shimerda family was not equipped to handle it. Jim meets two Russian men who also are trying to farm. They can't make it either. In their case, they were essentially run out of town in Russia. They were driving a sled as part of a wedding party. They drove the bride and groom. On the way home, they were attacked by wolves. They threw off the bride and groom to save themselves.

In Part 2 of the book, Jim and Antonia go to town to work. They do this to get more money for the farm. The dance tent comes to town, and with it a realization that they're growing up. Antonia eventually moves to the house of Wick Cutter, ome of the most notorious money lenders in town. One night, he tries to rape her, only to find that Jim has taken her place. Wick attacks Jim, who escapes. Antonia comes by the next day to retrieve her things.

In Part 3, Jim has moved to the University of Nebraska. He encounters Lena Lingard, who is now a successful dressmaker in Lincoln. There appears to be a romance brewing, until Lena says she never wishes to marry. When one of his professors, Gaston Cleric, receives an offer to teach at Harvard, Jim goes with him.

The final segment is 20 years later. Jim, now a successful lawyer in New York, stops by Black Hawk on his way back from San Francisco. Antonia is married, with 6 kids. She was supposed to marry one man, but he left town before the wedding, but not before getting her pregnant. She is now managing the farm, which has become quite successful.

The book read more like a series of short stories than a novel. It seemed like there were few connections from one story to the next. It reminded me of a TV series. Her desctiptions of life on the Nebraska prairie made it come to life. This book was published in 1918, just as this life was ending, and the US was entering World War I. At the time, there were a lot of her who could still remember what life was like back then. It does have its flaws. Her description of a black piano player uses words that would be banned today. It is a product of its time, like Mark Twain using the N-word in Huckleberry Finn. All in all, a great novel, and one deserving of the title American classic.

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