The spirited daughter of Bohemian immigrants, Ántonia must adapt to a hard existence on the desolate prairies of the Midwest. Enduring childhood poverty, teenage seduction, and family tragedy, she eventually becomes a wife and mother on a Nebraska farm. A fictional record of how women helped forge the communities that formed a nation, My Ántonia is also a hauntingly eloquent celebration of the strengths, courage, and spirit of America’s early pioneers.
Yes, I know the blurb is daft – but I didn’t write it. If I had, I’d give it something great, because My Ántonia deserves better. I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book, one of the assigned novels for the English category of the high school academic bowl. I love the competition, but we usually have to read some pretty dull stuff so I thought this would be more of the same.
Also, I’d convinced myself that Willa Cather’s books were either like Little House on the Prairie or else something only little old ladies would read. Seriously, poor farmers in Nebraska? Snoooore.
I mean, I’ve been to Nebraska. My family and I went on a cross-country train trip a few summers ago and the main thing I noticed was that Nebraska stretched on and on. Endless hills and grassy fields – not exactly thrilling material for a book.
I thought Cather felt the same way. Within the first few pages, she wrote:
The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.
But then she showed me that the state was better than that. I’ll admit that even at the end, I didn’t care much about Jim (the narrator) or Ántonia or anyone else, but I cared about Nebraska. Surprisingly.
Why? Because the descriptions are fabulous. As Jim spends more time there, he realizes there are many more things to notice. And he (or rather, the author) describes them in wonderful – but not overwrought – detail. I don’t have the time to flip through the novel and pick out all my favorite quotes, but there are a bunch. One in every chapter, at least. (Here, look on Goodreads.)
I may not live in Nebraska but I do live in the Midwest and I understood a lot of what Jim said because I’ve lived it. The bitterly freezing winters and the burning hot summers? Check. Fields as far as the eye could see? Check. (Well, not right next to my house, but close enough.)
I’m probably not doing a good job of describing the book, but that’s because I don’t have a lot of time and I’m trying to write quickly. Just trust me when I say that Willa Cather is a master at description and you should read this book. Like I said before, I didn’t care for the human characters – but her beautiful, well-written descriptions of the landscape more than made up for that. It’s a character in itself.