Monday, March 9, 2009

Willa Cather: My Antonia

"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."

My friend Blueberry lent me this book over Christmas and for a long time, it sat on my coffee table, waiting to be read. Friends would walk into the living room and express genuine shock that it has taken me until age 33 to read My Antonia. "How is that possible?" What can I say? It simply hadn't entered my universe before.

I picked it up on a dull, snowy day. The kind of day perfectly described in the book, in fact: "Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen." The story is told in the voice of Jim Burden, an orphaned boy who is brought to Nebraska to live with his grandparents in the late 19th century. Antonia and her family are immigrants from Bohemia who have come to farm the land adjacent to the Burdens. Far from the American opportunity and promise they set out to find, their living situation is untenable, and they encounter struggles in the new world that they never would have imagined.

Willa Cather's prose is incredibly rich. She sets the Midwestern countryside ablaze with sunshine and lights up each individual blade of grass. Your mind can't help but hold a nostalgic, detailed picture of Antonia, her ragged dress, the dusty pioneer town, the dances, the starlight, the heat.

My Antonia is a portrait of pioneer life, and especially of the demands and struggles that confronted women of that time period. It is a reflection on nostalgia, friendship, endurance, and love. It's the kind of book you want to read again as soon as you've finished it. It's the kind you want to pass on to your friends and exclaim "What do you mean you haven't read this yet?" And even as you say it, you're just a little bit jealous. Because you know that when they open it, they'll get to meet Antonia for the first time, they'll get to run through the prairie grass, and be surprised and warmed by that deep, rich sunshine.

1 comment:

Anna said...

That's the exact quote that stayed with me when I listened to My Antonia on tape in the fall! Soooo beautiful.