My Ántonia is Jim Burden’s account of his childhood friend, Ántonia Shimerda. They arrived on the plains of Nebraska on the same night, lived as neighbors on farmsteads and were each other’s only friends while they lived in the country; eventually, societal boundaries separated them.
When I read Willa Cather’s classic this time, I saw shades of Wendell Berry in Ántonia’s exuberant work ethic and love for the land, and shadows of The Kiterunner in the contrast between Jim Burden’s position of privilege and the ethnic bias against the immigrant families. My Ántonia is poignant without pathos, nostalgic without melancholy; homesickness infused with the passionate joy of Ántonia.
Willa Cather is known as an author of place, a master of location. It is true. When Cather writes about the land, you can see the place, feel the wind, hear the sounds. This is where her writing is luminous.
My memory from previous readings was of a sad ending; oh how wrong I was. The last section of the book, where Jim, now a New York City lawyer, visits Ántonia with her husband and ten children, a farm full of harmony, laughter and work, was my favorite.
“Oh, great and just God, no man among us knows what the sleeper knows, nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and Thee.” He prayed that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart. He recalled the promises to the widow and the fatherless, and asked God to smooth the way before this widow and her children, and to “incline the hearts of men to deal justly with her.” In closing, he said we were leaving Mr. Shimerda at “Thy judgment seat, which is also Thy mercy seat.” p. 134
I was thinking, as I watched her, how little it mattered–about her teeth, for instance. I know so many women who have kept all the things that she had lost, but whose inner glow had faded. Whatever else was gone, Ántonia had not lost the fire of life. p.379
…in farmhouses, somehow, life comes and goes by the back door. p.382
[Ántonia’s perceptive comment on depression (sadness) and hard work]
No, I never get down-hearted. Anton’s a good man, and I love my children and always believed they would turn out well. I belong on a farm. I’m never lonesome here like I used to be in town. You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn’t know what was the matter with me? I’ve never had them out here. And I don’t mind work a bit, if I don’t have to put up with sadness. p.387
[on Anton Cusak, Ántonia’s husband]
He looked like a humorous philosopher who had hitched up one shoulder under the burdens of life, and gone on his way having a good time when he could. p.402
[Jim’s observation of Ántonia and Cuzak. This is my marriage summed up in one sentence.]
Clearly, she was the impulse, and he the corrective. p.403