Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

Title: My Ántonia
Author: Willa Cather
Published: 1918

It was a great joy to read My Ántonia for Willa Cather Reading Week.  What a wonderful pleasure!

Given that I have only read this and O Pioneers!, I would not claim to be a Cather expert; nonetheless, for this post I will gladly boast what an exceptional author she is.

For example, if you admire human stories, beautiful or tragic, and if you appreciate intricately woven settings that appeal to your senses, then this story - and O Pioneers! - are perfect suggestions.  You can get lost in her words.  (Well, I did. Sometimes I forgot I was reading a book.)

By the way, the prairie, the setting for both novels, is real.  It still exists.  This summer, my family drove through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, and of course I took a few pictures.  It is miles and miles and miles of immense sky, wide open spaces, waving grasses, and rolling hills, with an occasional tree.  I added the photos to this post, and I suppose that is why I like this particular book cover.  It reminds me of the scenes I saw.


Anyway, back to the human stories: so far I have found that Cather develops memorable characters, often with extremely formidable and outstanding personality traits. Throughout this story, I clung to particular characters and hoped for the story to turn a specific way; but like O Pioneers!, it was not what Cather had in mind.  Well, at least there was not as much heartbreak.  (I won't tell you what happened in O Pioneers! because you'll have to read it yourself to find out.)

In My Ántonia, there was some disappointment.  However, as in real human stories, not everything concludes the way you expect or want it to.  Life can be super messy, and often times there is disappointment and even tragedy.  I suppose I could say that Cather writes closely to real life. Maybe that is why I really enjoyed these two stories because I tend to seek out reality.

Kansas, or somewhere in the Mid-West

Also, a theme that I found repeating itself in My Ántonia involved memories of people and places from our past and how important they are to us.  Cather used the Latin phrase "Optima dies...prima fugit," which means, "in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee," as the main character recalled the carefree days of his youth.  He dreamed about his past and the people who touched his life.  He even had to move away because it was a distraction to him.  When he returned to where he grew up and to see his childhood friend, Ántonia, he hoped she did not change.  I get the feeling he wished things could remain the same for always.  Of course, that was not possible.  He said, as he returned to visit Ántonia after twenty years,
I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it.  In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions.  I did not wish to lose the early ones.  Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.
There are a lot of other important ideas one could take away from this story, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.  So, as I was extremely pleased with My Ántonia, I do look forward to reading the third book in this prairie trilogy by Cather: The Song of the Lark.  (And, hey! I even have a picture of a meadowlark on the site where we stopped to see the replica of The Little House on the Prairie log cabin, in Kansas. )
Meadowlark singing his little heart out


Cleo said...

Even though Cather portrays the struggles and disappointments of life, there is something uplifting about her writing. I'm glad that you enjoyed this one. I still have to read O Pioneers!, yet another book to add to my TBR list!

Ruth said...

True. Her stories are very matter-of-fact, and there is something very calming or reassuring of that.

Knowing what you read and appreciate, you'll like O Pioneers!

Anonymous said...

I think, too, it's about how we choose to respond to our memories. Antonia's father's memories haunt him, they contrast his current unhappiness in the prairie with the good times and happy life he had in the home country, while the main character (Jim?) turns to his memories as a comfort to a successful, but otherwise boring present life in NY. Meanwhile the Russian's past haunts them as well, but they are running away from the past and trying to embrace the present, with little success.

Ruth said...

This is true. I mainly focused on Jim's memories, and how he coveted his youthful remembrances, and maybe b/c I can relate to happy youthful memories. But it is correct that the memories of Ántonia's father were burdensome to him, and eventually killed him. However, one could look at that and see that those were pleasant to him, but he could not continue living knowing he would never have them again.

Brona said...

I loved My Antonia too. There was something about the grass filled prairies that spoke to me (all the way from the other side of the world).
I loved how strongly the environment influenced the characters. I can't wait to read the other 2 books in the prairie trilogy.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I'm going to have to give Willa Cather another try sometime. I read this in college, and O Pioneers! shortly after graduating, and I ended up not caring for either of them. Maybe it's that bittersweetness -- I tend to like either happy or sad books, not books in between. Regardless, I should try The Song of the Lark and see if I like it better. One of these days!

Ruth said...

Well, I don't know about Song of the Lark, yet, but O Pioneers! has a shocking turn of events. It was totally unexpected; but that could have been me - slow on the clues.

Ruth said...

Hey, you never know. We change and grow and our world views are modified by our experiences. You may appreciate them a second time around. It happens.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Indeed, it does happen! We shall see :-)

Janet said...

I loved My Antonia but I don't remember much of O Pioneers. I will give it a re-read. My Antonia can be heart wrenching. I felt such deep sadness for her father. Imagine what it must be like to be so strong and successful in your homeland only to move to a situation for which you are unprepared. I have not read Song of the Lark but I did read Death Comes for the Archbishop. That is differenct but I enjoyed it. Thanks for such a beautiful post.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Janet. It was terrible for the whole family to lose the patriarch. I there was a way who could have persevered in his new country. But that's Willa Cather for you.