In 1882, when author Willa Cather was nine years-old, her family left their home in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, and moved to Nebraska, near the settler country in Red Cloud where they farmed a homestead. Ms. Cather, often thought of as a chronicler of the pioneer American West, frequently drew on her memories of prairie culture and her own personal experiences. She wrote about the themes closest to her heart. Of primary importance was the drama of the immigrant struggling to survive in a new world, epitomized here in "My Antonia." In this extraordinary novel, Miss Cather weaves together the story of Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant girl from Bohemia who represents the optimism, determination and pure grit that newcomers to America needed to make a successful life, and that of American-born Jim Burden, our narrator.
Burden, a successful and cultured East-coast lawyer, is returning to his childhood home in Blackhawk, Nebraska for a visit. On the long train ride, he reminisces with an unnamed friend about the place where they had both grown up and about the people they knew - especially their dear friend Antonia, "who seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood."
When young Jim Burden was orphaned at age ten, he left his native Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm, just outside of Blackhawk. At almost the same time that Jim arrived, the Shimerda family settled on their land. Mrs. Shimerda had argued effectively for a move to America so that the children, especially Ambrosch, the eldest son, would have the chance to make a better life for themselves, with more possibilities of moving up in the social hierarchy and of acquiring wealth. The Bohemian newcomers were the Burden's closest neighbors. Fourteen year-old Antonia Shimerda, the eldest daughter became a close friend of Jim's. He was immediately drawn to her warmth and friendliness. When Antonia's father, a sensitive, refined man, discovered that Jim was educated he asked the boy to teach his daughter to speak English. "Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Án-tonia!" he told/asked Mrs. Burden. Together the two young people worked the land and explored the glorious prairie. And Antonia began to learn English.
Unfortunately, Antonia's studies came to an end with her father's tragic suicide. The man missed his native land terribly and was not able to accept his family's extreme poverty or the demands of his wife and son. When he lost his only friends, he sunk into a deep depression from which he was not able to escape. After Mr. Shimerda's death, Antonia had to work even harder, performing the heaviest, most physically demanding chores, just to keep the farm from going under. She was not able to go to school with Jim, and began to slowly lose the refined ways she had learned from her dad.
The author describes Antonia's life as Jim perceives it, and from information he gathers from others about the long periods when he did not have contact with her. Their widely different positions in society dictated their life choices and their fortunes. And their lives, their personal histories, parallel the changes and the transformation of the Great Plains. When Antonia and Jim explored the Nebraskan wilderness, it was a wilderness as far as the eye could see. "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land--slightly undulating..." And, "I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it." When Jim makes his return trip by train, years later, everything had changed.
Willa Cather's prose is straightforward, the narrative is deceptively simple and crystal clear. Her characters are complex and the wonderful, richly textured descriptions of the landscape and life on the plains make reading the novel pure pleasure. The author also captures the interior landscape of her characters with great perception and sensitivity. This is a great work of fiction which depicts a people, and a place in time, which only remain on the pages of a book, preserved vividly by Willa Cather.
H.L. Mencken wrote, "No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as 'My Antonia.'"