Friday, 12 December 2014

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

I read My Ántonia as part of Heavenali's Willa Cather Reading week.
It was my first Cather - the first of many, I now realise!

Reading My Ántonia was like falling into a lovely warm, cosy doona. It was comforting, it was some how familar, like a dear, old friend & it was generous, big-hearted & welcoming....just like Ántonia herself.

As Jim Burden remembers his childhood and his friendship with the slightly older 'Tony', Nebraska, farm life and that particular time in American history become infused with the sweet glow of nostalgia. Cather captures the rhythms & pace of small time life perfectly - it's comforts and its ennuis.

As many of you will know, I have also been reading 6 poems by Robert Frost in honour of my stepson's HSC course.

Images of apple picking, harvesting, be-dewed fields & woods filled with snow have been haunting my dreams. Cather's depictions of Nebraskan prairie life merged with these fleeting images to create a mood of deep belonging & knowing.

Like Frost, Cather's characters are shaped by their environments. The wide, open, lonely prairies, prone to extremes of weather, test not only character but become apart of the romantic, hard-working world-view that both Ántonia and Jim develop. Ántonia is also heavily influenced by her memories of her youth in Bohemia when her father was happy.

Ántonia believes the best of people, takes pride in her background & embraces change and catastrophe with a  sense of stoicism & adventureness. 

Ántonia's story is told entirely from Jim's point of view, so there are some sections that fail to satisfy. Even as we enjoy seeing Jim come of age, we soon realise that we do so at the risk of losing sight of Ántonia. There are whole slabs of her life we can only see through Jim's sentimental eyes.

I'm an historical fiction fanatic...and when it is written as beautifully and evocatively as this is, then I will rave 'til the cows come home!

As a sidenote, I found the descriptions of the (native) red grass plains beautiful - in the summer reflecting & waving the sunset or in the winter bowed down by snow. As time passed and more land was ploughed under for farming, one could foresee the doomed practices that helped to create the dust bowl disaster of the 1930's (unknown to Cather at the time, as she published this in 1918).

"As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of day....The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire but was not consumed."

"Big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing in the red grass."

"The old pasture land was now being broken up into wheatfields and cornfields, the red grass was disappearing, and the whole face of the country was changing."

"I took a long walk north of the town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again."
 
My Drop Caps edition of My Ántonia was illustrated with lovely line drawings by W. T. Benda

8 comments:

  1. It took me a long time to read Cather too. I remember a friend raving about My Antonia back in high school but I just was not interested. When I read it many years later I loved it. For the Reading Week, I read Sapphira and the Slave Girl (just posted my review), A Lost Lady, and Shadows on the Rock. I enjoyed them all but Shadows on the Rock was my favorite -- the setting is 17th century Quebec City, and Cather evokes it as wonderfully as she did the Western pioneer experience.

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    1. I'll check out your reviews - sounds like I will be hunting down ALL her books :-)

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  2. Nostalgia is definitely a key aspect of this work. The way the novel explores the nature of memory is powerful. I understood the novel to be asking, "How do we respond to our pasts?" Do we try to outrun it because it is too terrible like the Russians? Does the past and our memories function as a lost happiness that destroys any possibility of contentment in the present like it does for Mr. Shemirda? Or does the past serve as a way of providing meaning and contentment for a dull and unfulfilled life in the present like with Jim?

    Here are some of my additional thoughts if you're interested.

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  3. This sounds wonderful. I do have it in my TBR List someday. ......

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  4. I'm so glad that you enjoyed your first Cather novel. I realized this week that it's been entirely too long since I read her Prairie Trilogy. It's time for a re-read! I read My Mortal Enemy this week, and it wasn't quite what I had expected...

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  5. So glad you enjoyed your first experience of Willa Cather. Her writing is very evocative.
    Lovely review :)

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  6. A wonderful point about the characters being shaped by their environment! The environment is beautiful and the characters are beautiful too. I really loved this book and was so sad to miss this reading week, as I would have loved to read more Cather. Oh well, all in good time!

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  7. I have not yet read Cather but I really need to get around to.

    I like the way that you have drawn the parallels to Frost.

    The way that you describe the characters being influenced by nature and the landscape reminds me of the novels of DH Lawrence.

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