Monday, January 01, 2018

My Antonia by Willa Cather


Happy New Year!  When we start a new year, there is a lot of talk of resolutions and the future.  So, true to my contrarian nature, I've decided to look backwards.  To that end, all of the books I'll be reviewing this week were published 100 years ago in 1918.  Enjoy!

My Antonia is, of course, the story of Antonia, a young Bohemian girl who moves with her family to a farm in Nebraska in the 19th century.  But it is also the story of Jim Burden, a boy a couple years younger than Antonio who goes to live with his grandparents in Nebraska on the same day that Antonia's family arrives.  Jim is recalling everything he has ever known or felt about Antonia which includes all of the other people and places that he is reminded of by her name.  Jim's story details his and Antonia's childhood in the farm country, their adolescence in the small town of Black Hawk, and adulthood beyond.  There are threads that follow throughout the book but this is mostly a character study.  Luckily, Antonia and the supporting characters are all rendered so completely that you'll be turning the pages wanting to see what happens to them as though they're populating a thriller.

Willa Cather wrote the little moments.  My Antonia is filled with these moments.  It shows how brief encounters can alter the course of a life, how a lunch together or a lingering glance can stay with someone for decades.  These seemingly mundane little slices of life can end up being what matters the most.  It can be a tough sell to explain how two characters talking for a few minutes can mean all the world but that's how full Cather's characters are.  You know them.  You've known them for most of their lives.  And you feel almost as strongly as they do about what it means to love and be loved.  Even the landscape itself begins to feel like a familiar friend, as it certainly is to Jim and Antonia.  I've never much thought about the natural beauty of a place like Nebraska but Cather makes every spot feel worthy of a novel itself.  It's rare for a book about a boy loving a girl not to descend into cliche and sappiness but that's probably why My Antonia is still a classic a century later.

If you like this book, you could try O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.  It's another entry in her loose Prairie Trilogy, available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

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