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Apparently ‘My Antonia’ is one of the staples of the American school English literature syllabus. If so, good on them. Much better than the tripe my very right-on English teachers got me to read – mainly Dylan Thomas and D H Lawrence. I hated them then and I haven’t looked at their work since. As I have said in a previous post, I read the nineteenth century classics in my twenties whilst commuting on trains up and down to London – but, Dear Reader, I didn’t come across Willa at that time, more’s the pity.
‘My Antonia’ is supposed to be the reminiscence of New York lawyer, Jim Burden, of his days as pioneer in Nebraska, Willa’s favourite stamping ground. The story starts with Jim and new immigrant, Antonia, as children, attempting, with their families, to make a living on the barren, uncultivated land, where the red grass grew. They learned to survive the harsh winters, although Antonia’s poor father, a delicate musician from ‘the old country’, did not see out even one. The story spans several decades as the children grow up, enjoying life as teenagers in the small frontier town of Black Hawk and Jim moving on to the big cities to university and to practise law.
Willa Catha’s work is always charming and innocent and the people so sweet and gentle that you wish that you lived amongst them, despite the harsh conditions. This is a very old fashioned work, which meanders circuitously through the years, with little or no plot except that of young people growing up and taming the harsh, virgin land. Loose ends abound. Antonia’s mother was clearly demanding and difficult, and the reader might expect her disagreeable character to affect the course of the story in some way, but she just fades from the pages. The same happens with her domineering brother Ambrosch, and Krajieck who overcharged her family for their land and the cave they lived in. Characters move in and move out, mirroring the structure of real life, more than a novel. Towards the end of the book, Larry Donovan figures largely in Antonia’s life but is probably mentioned less than half a dozen times. The writer, who appears in the first chapter only, doesn’t like Jim’s wife, but this theme isn’t developed either.
It is unclear who is the main character. The title would predicate Antonia herself and certainly she features largely, but Jim tells the story in the first person, with large portions of it to do solely with Jim himself and other characters, without Antonia. The relationship between Antonia and Jim is an enigma not properly resolved; at first playmates, then good friends, although they both had many other friends – lovers, never.
If ‘My Antonia’ had been taken to a modern writers’ workshop, it would’ve been torn to shreds by so-called experts, but yet, Dear Reader, I felt more in tune with the characters in this book, more involved and generally more interested, than in anything that written to the ‘rules’ we writers have to abide by now.
So would I recommend ‘My Antonia’. Yes, definitely.