Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Here's another classic that I'm reading for the first time, but I suspect that I appreciated it much more at mid-life than I would have in secondary school, which is when most readers find it on assigned reading lists.  This is a tale of nostalgia, and frankly, teen-agers haven't got enough years under their belts to work up a proper sense of nostalgia.

Say the name Willa Cather and I think of the great open prairies of America's mid-west. When I was a younger woman, the mere thought of this landscape was insufferably boring. Grass. Sky. When I visited the desert southwest, I saw a bigger sky than I'd ever seen in my life, having grown up in a forested landscape. I suddenly understood the drama of light, clouds and massive fields of stars. After reading My Antonia, I can appreciate the beauty of vast, unbroken fields of grasses and grains under that tremendous sky. That landscape, I expect, is becoming increasingly rare nowadays. The idea of Nebraska being a destination for rugged pioneers is long past. 

The story's narrator, Jim Burden, arrives in Nebraska as a young boy, and the prairie clearly seizes his heart straight away. 
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.
I also had the good fortune to grow up in the country in a time before consumer electronics were the main source of entertainment for kids. Regardless of the season, my mother was quick to urge me out of the house to either do chores or find some other way to amuse myself. I remember certain moments of doing nothing but looking around myself at the natural beauty of Maine and simply being. It's much harder for me to do that nowadays, more challenging to ignore the distractions, especially in a city. I imagine few children of the 21st century experience 'pumpkin' moments like this.
I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
Antonia's family migrated from Central Europe to Nebraska and, like so many others, fought to survive the brutal winters living in sod houses, worked like draft animals to make a living from their farms, struggled to learn English from their neighbours. Pushed by his wife to migrate to America, Antonia's father never overcame his homesickness and despaired of adapting to this harsh new life. His suicide consigned his daughter to work the farm alongside her dictatorial older brother. She, however, seemed to take pride in her strength and endurance, boasting that she could accomplish as much as any man. Many of the adults in the area, especially the American ladies, shook their heads at this state of affairs, worried that she would never live a decent life. Antonia does come into the town for a while to work as a domestic for a good family, but when a marriage falls through and she returns disgraced and pregnant, it is back to her family's farm she goes.

The story sees the children, Jim and Antonia included, progressing through adolescence and into adulthood. Jim goes to the state capital and then to Harvard to study law. While in Lincoln, he meets up with a Swedish girl from his town, Lena, who has become a successful dressmaker. Another feisty young Swede, Tiny, goes west and makes a fortune in the Klondike gold rush (losing some toes to frostbite in the process).  The local people see them as success stories, but Antonia's choices seems to disappoint all those who knew her and had rather hoped she might amount to something more.  Antonia, after bearing her beloved but illegitimate daughter, married another Bavarian farmer and bore him ten children.

Eventually, in their middle age, Jim finds that Lena and Tiny, both single and prosperous businesswomen have returned to their home town, where they share lodgings. Lena's concern that Tiny might become a Nebraskan Hetty Green made me smile.

It interested me, after so many years, to see the two women together. Tiny audits Lena's accounts occasionally, and invests her money for her; and Lena, apparently, takes care that Tiny doesn't grow too miserly. 'If there's anything I can't stand,' she said to me in Tiny's presence, 'it's a shabby rich woman.' Tiny smiled grimly and assured me that Lena would never be either shabby or rich.
Jim summons his strength, rents a horse and cart and drives out to Antonia's farm. He finds her much as she always was -- strong, good-humoured, and loving toward her husband, children and the land they work.  She tells him that she couldn't imagine living in a town, much less a city.

I was startled that other characters shook their heads sadly when talking about 'poor Antonia', bemoaning her fate. In fact, she seemed enormously content with her life. Surely, early 20th century Nebraskans still respected and admired farmers, I'd have thought, but they seem to have placed a higher value on those who took up more urbanised and white-collar careers. And there is Antonia, standing strong and fecund and bold, much like the prairie itself, not caring what others think.

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