“My Antonia” is one of Willa Cather’s best known books. She began writing in her 40’s and this book is her fourth, first published in 1918. Cather is famous for giving us full and vivid stories of characters who explored and settled America, many of whom came from other countries. “My Antonia” is set in Nebraska, where Cather’s family relocated from Virginia when she was nine years old.
The book is about Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant girl who first comes to Nebraska from Europe when she is only 12. But Antonia does not tell the story, her neighbor Jim does. He comes to Black Hawk, Nebraska, to live with his grandparents after his parents die, the same time that Antonia and her family arrive. His family helps Antonia’s family out as they undergo hardships. Think of living in a cave, hollowed out in the sod, during your first winter before you can plant and build a house ! The Shirmedas have to do just that to get through the bitter winter, hanging on until springtime.
Having the story told from Jim’s point of view gives us a chance to know Antonia as if she was our friend and companion, too. We see her vitality and high spirits. She loves the farm and the countryside, and when she has to live in the city for an interlude, being anonymous, alone among so many, crushes her spirit. She wants to be where she knows “every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly.”
Their two lives inevitably grow apart, as Jim becomes educated and moves east, rising in the world of railways and big business. Antonia stays on and has her own struggles in the small town and its community. But their friendship stands fast, anchored when they were children, wandering over the prairie that is so lush in spring, and so stark in the summer heat and the winter blasts. Cather brings the land and its feelings right to you, just as she does with the people. There are echoes of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby here- how the future beckons us, yet leaves the strongest feelings in the past. Cather suggests that Antonia has taken the right road – that the land and each other, and being faithful to both, may be our best chance for contentment.