My Antonia by Willa Cather

A brief synopsis from Goodreads:

“Through Jim Burden’s endearing, smitten voice, we revisit the remarkable vicissitudes of immigrant life in the Nebraska heartland, with all its insistent bonds. Guiding the way are some of literature’s most beguiling characters: the Russian brothers plagued by memories of a fateful sleigh ride, Antonia’s desperately homesick father and self-indulgent mother, and the coy Lena Lingard. Holding the pastoral society’s heart, of course, is the bewitching, free-spirited Antonia.”

I have such a varied response to the book and I’m afraid explaining myself will make this a spoiler-laden review. You’ve been warned.

The first half of this book was amazing. It felt like a beautifully written Little House on the Prairie for adults. Jim’s move out West to his grandparents’ home, daily chore life, the plight of immigrants, and beautiful descriptions of the prairie made this portion of the book a delight. It was lovely, deeply moving, and truly made me feel that I was on the prairie battling the elements. It had a very East of Eden feel to it. I was invested in the characters and their lives.

That’s the good part of the novel, the next half gets tricky. I want to mention that I read this novel my freshman year of college and hated it, but for a very personal reason. Towards the latter half of the book Antonia is tricked by a douchebag, moves to marry said douchebag and he leaves her preganant and disgraced. She moves back home and her family is upset, but she handles things as she should; she doesn’t show her face, she is humble and meek, she continues to work hard in the field, and she silently gives birth – unassisted – to a baby girl. I read this book when I was four months pregnant with Hope. Her abusive bio-dad was out of the picture, but I was deeply ashamed to be pregnant and unmarried. I was starting college and had already endured questions about my “husband” and I knew there were students gossiping about my “condition.” My Antonia struck a nerve with me. Of course this book was published in 1918, but in a small Southern town the reactions to my pregnancy, my choice to remain unmarried and not contact the father (only my parents knew of his violent behavior) and my drive to go to college was antithesis to what many people thought or expected me to do. I hated Antonia’s “perfect behavior” and bristled at Jim Burden’s condescending and disappointed tone.

As I approached this book a second time I was better able to separate my situation from the fictional situation in My Antonia. Hence my enjoyment of the first part of the novel. HOWEVER, I still bristled with disdain at the last half of the book and I think I’ve figured out why.

Jim Burden is a snobby prat who objectifies and “Others” the bejeezus out of Antonia. As a child and even as a young man four years her junior, his fascination with her culture, appearance, and life as an immigrant makes sense. Jim is curious and learning about the world. Antonia still seems very much alive and her own person.

When Jim begins to grow intellectually there is a split. He avoids seeing Antonia when he visits home because he doesn’t want to see her different or aged. He is afraid that she has lost her spark and beauty and then there is the whole baby out of wedlock thing. When he finally visits Antonia he is an established attorney and Antonia is a wife and mother of eleven kids. He spends loads of time talking about her toothless grin, or how he can detect some beauty still in her, and all the connection to the land and the maternalness and the gosh-darn beauty of these earthy, maternal immigrants! Antonia is a stock character. A symbol of the prairie wild that has been some what domesticated, but never tamed. Her voice and spark no longer drives the narrative and the reader no longer cares about Antonia as a complex person, but rather humorously appreciates “well that ended well.”

I know, I KNOW, it is part of that time period, but it still bugs the hell out of me. I wish I knew Antonia’s story from her true voice and not the slathering, condescending narrative from a pretentious attorney.

Let me know, did I get this all wrong? Am I reading too much into it? Did anyone else have this reaction? Let’s talk about it! Talk me out of my 3 stars for the book, because I really, really wanted to love this one.

 

~~~ Stats ~~~

Started: 03 January 2016

Finished: 05 January 2016

Pages: 272 pages

Challenges: #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, Back to the Classics (college re-read), Virago Project

Owned/Borrow/Library: From my stacks

Stars: Three out of Five

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9 comments

  1. I need to read all of Cather’s work again and in quick succession. In fact, that sounds like a binge I could really get onboard for. I know I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of hers, but the details are so fuzzy. Ugh. Damn memory. I can only imagine the chord this struck for you the first time. In fact, I’m a little surprised you wanted to read it again.

  2. I love My Antonia – but can completely understand your reaction. The first half of the book was my preferred section too. If you liked that first section so much you might enjoy O Pioneers!

  3. I can’t talk you out of your three stars on Goodreads, because that’s what I gave it. I read the book about half a lifetime ago, but I remember liking the first half the best, and also being annoyed with Jim. I was wondering what you would think after reading it again.

  4. Great review! I loved this book also, and I’ve read it several times. Willa Cather nearly always resonates with me, and I always love her descriptions.

    I did notice you linked it to Banned or Censored Classic — do you want to use this category? I see that you’ve tagged it as a Classic Re-Read From School. We can change it if you want.

    1. If you wouldn’t mind changing it that would be grand. I was posting from my phone and hit the wrong one. My Antonia is a challenged book, but I am about to start The Well of Loneliness and that fits better. Thanks!

  5. Wow! I haven’t read this book although I do have it somewhere, but I read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck some years ago and it haunted me for ages afterwards. It was the theme of rejection that hit me – I should read it again but I’m not sure that I want to, just in case I have another reaction like the first.

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