Review: ‘My Antonia’

my antoniaMy Antonia

By Willa Cather

  • Date finished: Jan. 26, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1918
  • Project: Revisiting the Classics
  • Reading List: Winter 2013-14, 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts Upon Reading: 

Fact: My Antonia by Willa Cather is the only book that I’ve started, put down, and never finished. I never DNF books. No matter what, I always, always finish. Call it my will never to quit, as well as a crazy belief that every book has something good in it, something worthwhile. Well, not every book. But that’s the reason I tailor my reading list so carefully.

But anyway, I picked up My Antonia from the library awhile back, started it, didn’t like it, the book’s due date came up, I returned it and that was that. But I never forgot it, and I always wanted to give the book another chance.

This time around? I liked it. A lot. My Antonia tells the story of Jim Burden and his life on the Nebraska prairie in the late 19th century. He befriends Antonia Shimerda and her family of Bohemians living on a neighboring farm, a friendship that would go on to define his life.

My Antonia is a story of memory. The story is told entirely by Jim, who remembers Antonia as a strong-willed and beautiful girl who is beaten by and finds ways to overcome fate. She is representative of the prairie itself, she and the entire immigrant community that surrounds Black Hawk, Nebraska. I love how My Antonia, more than any other book I’ve read, illustrates the patchwork way the American west was settled, full of pioneers and immigrants trying to plant a new life. For Jim, Antonia represents everything good and earthy – in short, the life he left to become a New York City lawyer:

(Antonia) lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. 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.

The book has plenty of flaws. I can’t help but distrust and sort of dislike Jim. He sees Antonia as this beloved local curiosity, but who doesn’t do very much to help her situation. Antonia seems to worship Jim, even though he keeps such a distance from her. Plus, the whole memory thing gets old after awhile – everything seems to be colored by rose-tinted glasses. The prose is beautiful, but by the end, I thought it a little too fluffy and tiresome.

Still, I’m glad I read it.


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