MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Americans have spent much of the spring fighting the elements. The last few weeks brought tornadoes, floods and wildfires. The idea of Americans struggling against nature has preoccupied novelists for generations.
In the early 1900s, Willa Cather wrote about overcoming frontier hardship in her novel, "My Antonia," set on the Nebraska prairie. Author Bradford Morrow recommends the book as part of our series You Must Read This.
BRADFORD MORROW: How many of us have been assigned a book to read for a high school English class and come away from the experience thinking: Thank God I'll never have to read that again?
Willa Cather, one of the truly great American writers of the 20th century, suffers from a somewhat different kind of expulsion from the lives of many adults, 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, where it remains a humane story about a courageous Bohemian immigrant girl forced by fate to grow up on the beautiful, harsh flatlands of Nebraska.
We recall characters like the Russian friends Pavel and Peter with haunted clarity. What's interesting about "My Antonia" are the ways it manages to function as a perfectly inviting story for young readers, but how an adult willing to revisit it with a more developed critical eye can appreciate it for the subtly sophisticated narrative it truly is.
Cather is our quietest modernist. She was innovative in her approach to her work. 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, Nebraska, 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.
Recently, I visited Red Cloud not just to see the place where Cather grew up but where my own mother was born and my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived. And I found that even today, the fields, draws, skies, farms and small-town streets remain somehow captured in Cather's fiction.
There are certain books I try to reread every five years or so not because the novels have changed but because I have. "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 shed light on your own journey and bring into focus the Antonias and Jim Burdens who've 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.
BLOCK: Bradford Morrow is the author of "The Diviner's Tale." If you want to discuss this and other books with NPR listeners, you can join the NPR Facebook community by searching for NPR books and clicking like.
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