Return To The Prairie To Revisit 'My Antonia'

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My Antonia
My Antonia
By Willa Cather
Paperback, 272 pages
Oxford University Press

Read An Excerpt

How many of us have been assigned a book to read for a high school English class by a well-intentioned teacher and come away from the experience thinking, with all the conviction of heady youth, "Thank God I'll never have to read that again"?

With a mental flick of the wrist, we dismiss as drudges, romantics and windbags writers we may later come to realize are crucial to us. How easy it is to litter our youthful path with a slew of misunderstood masters!

Willa Cather, one of the truly great American writers of the 20th century, suffers, as I see it, from a somewhat different kind of expulsion from the lives of many adults, even those who go on to become serious readers. In particular, her best-known work, My Antonia, a novel we often first encounter as young adult literature, is a book many of us actually enjoyed in our youth. We feel comfortable leaving it safely, fondly stored in our memory banks, rickety as they may be, where it remains a humane story about a courageous Bohemian immigrant girl forced by fate and family exigencies to grow up on the beautiful, harsh flatlands of Nebraska.

We remember Jim Burden, who recounts Antonia's adventures as well as those of his own rural childhood with affection. We recall characters like the Russian friends, Pavel and Peter, with haunted clarity. We feel enduring fondness for Lena, the dressmaker. We still despise the evil money-lender Wick Cutter. And scenes such as the one where Jim heroically — at least to Antonia — bashes the head of a rattlesnake with his spade remain with us, so startling were they when we first read them.

What's interesting about My Antonia is how it manages to function as a perfectly inviting story for young readers, and how an adult willing to revisit it with a more developed critical eye can appreciate it for the subtly sophisticated narrative it truly is. In this regard, it's not unlike a wildly different book, Alice in Wonderland. Great fun for kids, psychologically captivating for grownups.

Cather is our quietest Modernist. That is to say, she was innovative in her approach to her work, but novels such as My Antonia were written in such a deceptively plain prose style that their robust, formal originality, their delicious complexities can easily be missed. The story is told in the male-gendered voice of Jim Burden (a decision, by the way, that Cather found herself having to defend). Through Burden, Cather uses landscape not merely as backdrop, but as a kind of character, dynamically interactive with Antonia's family as well as everyone else in Black Hawk, the prairie town based on Red Cloud, Neb., where Cather grew up. Pavel's deathbed scene, for instance, is remarkable for its Greek chorus of ghostly winds that "impatiently" shake the doors and windows of the house, howling coyotes echoing Pavel's own moans as they "tell us that winter was coming" (winter being death itself), and stars overhead that "have their influence on what is and what is not to be."

Bradford Morrow's latest book is The Diviner's Tale. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007. i

Bradford Morrow's latest book is The Diviner's Tale. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007. Michael Eastman hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Eastman
Bradford Morrow's latest book is The Diviner's Tale. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007.

Bradford Morrow's latest book is The Diviner's Tale. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007.

Michael Eastman

Recently, I visited Red Cloud to see the place where Cather grew up and about which she wrote — but also where my own mother was born and my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived and are laid to rest in the same cemetery as some of Cather's family, along with the real Jim Burden, from whom Cather took her narrator's name. And I found that even today, the fields, draws, skies, farms and small-town streets remain somehow captured in Cather's fiction, clear as a just-rediscovered family album in which our own faces and forebears are imaged.

There are certain books I try to reread every five years or so — Hardy's Tess, Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Nabokov's Lolita — not because the novels have changed but because I have. If, as Stendhal wrote, a novel is a mirror carried along the road, then a novel might also be a reader's most crystal-clear mirror when sitting with a book in hand. My Antonia reflects not just a particular period of time in America's adolescence, but if you happened to relish it when you were young, experiencing it again, from a more seasoned perspective, might also shed light on your own journey and bring into focus the Antonias and Jim Burdens who have influenced you along the way. And if you haven't read this classic, I envy you your first journey through the novel Cather herself considered her finest achievement.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.

Excerpt: 'My Antonia'

My Antonia
My Antonia
By Willa Cather
Paperback, 272 pages
Oxford University Press

I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the "hands" on my father's old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake's experience with the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.

We went all the way in day-coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each stage of the journey. Jake bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, a watch-charm, and for me a "Life of Jesse James," which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read. Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which we were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant states and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk.

Once when he sat down to chat, he told us that in the immigrant car ahead there was a family from "across the water" whose destination was the same as ours.

"They can't any of them speak English, except one little girl, and all she can say is 'We go Black Hawk, Nebraska.' She's not much older than you, twelve or thirteen, maybe, and she's as bright as a new dollar. Don't you want to go ahead and see her, Jimmy? She's got the pretty brown eyes, too!"

This last remark made me pretty bashful, and I shook my head and settled down to "Jesse James." Jake nodded at me approvingly and said you were likely to get diseases from foreigners.

I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day's journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.

I had been sleeping, curled up in a red plush seat, for a long while when we reached Black Hawk. Jake roused me and took me by the hand. We stumbled down from the train to a wooden siding, where men were running about with lanterns. I couldn't see any town, or even distant lights; we were surrounded by utter darkness. The engine was panting heavily after its long run. In the red glow from the fire-box, a group of people stood huddled together on the platform, encumbered by bundles and boxes. I knew this must be the immigrant family the conductor had told us about. The woman wore a fringed shawl tied over her head, and she carried a little tin trunk in her arms, hugging it as if it were a baby. There was an old man, tall and stooped. Two half-grown boys and a girl stood holding oilcloth bundles, and a little girl clung to her mother's skirts. Presently a man with a lantern approached them and began to talk, shouting and exclaiming. I pricked up my ears, for it was positively the first time I had ever heard a foreign tongue.

Another lantern came along. A bantering voice called out: "Hello, are you Mr. Burden's folks? If you are, it's me you're looking for. I'm Otto Fuchs. I'm Mr. Burden's hired man, and I'm to drive you out. Hello, Jimmy, ain't you scared to come so far west?"

I looked up with interest at the new face in the lantern light. He might have stepped out of the pages of "Jesse James." He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his moustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian's. Surely this was the face of a desperado. As he walked about the platform in his high-heeled boots, looking for our trunks, I saw that he was a rather slight man, quick and wiry, and light on his feet. He told us we had a long night drive ahead of us, and had better be on the hike. He led us to a hitching-bar where two farm-wagons were tied, and I saw the foreign family crowding into one of them. The other was for us. Jake got on the front seat with Otto Fuchs, and I rode on the straw in the bottom of the wagon-box, covered up with a buffalo hide. The immigrants rumbled off into the empty darkness, and we followed them.

I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down, I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land — slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. 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.

Excerpted from My Antonia by Willa Cather. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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