Retro Review: My Ántonia by Willa Cather

my-antonia1Willa Cather has written several novels, My Ántonia being one of her most famous. My Ántonia is written from the point of view of Jim Burden to a friend of his. Jim Burden is a successful attorney living in New York City. But in his youth, he lived in Nebraska where he lived with his grandparents after the death of his parents. Both he and his acquaintance are friends with Ántonia Shimerda, who was an immigrant from Bohemia, and whose family were trying to make a new life in a new country so different from where they came from. Ántonia Shimerda is the main focus of Burden’s memories of his Nebraskan youth.

Burden first meets the Shimerdas while traveling from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. The Shimerdas become neighbors of Burden’s grandparents when they take up residence at a neighboring farm. Burden becomes friendly with the entire family, but he becomes closest to Ántonia for the simple fact they are quite close in age and they decide to explore their new homes in Nebraska. Burden also agrees to teach Ántonia the English language so she can become more familiar and comfortable in her new homeland.

Early one winter, Ántonia’s father takes his own life. Ántonia and her family are left devastated. Jim and his grandparents do their best to comfort the Shimerda family. But sadly, their grief is almost too much to bear, and Burden and Ántonia’s friendship is seriously tested.

Years go by, and Burden and Ántonia become reacquainted when they find themselves both in the same city. Several years older, Ántonia is working as a housekeeper for the Harling family. Burden and Ántonia rekindle their friendship. At this point in the novel, Burden recalls Ántonia spending her off hours at various dances and other fun social events.

Burden soon graduates from high school and is about to embark on his college studies. But before he leaves, he and Ántonia decide to travel to the country with their friends where they reminisce about their younger years.

While in college, Burden becomes very close to a young lady named Lena Lingard, who is also a friend of Ántonia’s. But his future beckons him, so he moves back east, arriving at Harvard to finish up his education.

Meanwhile, Ántonia faces another cruel obstacle when the boy she was supposed to marry leaves days before the wedding. Ántonia is also pregnant and after giving birth, struggles to raise her child as a single mother. Horrified by Ántonia’s lot in life, Burden comes back to Nebraska to help Ántonia any way he can.

However, Burden has his own life to live. He moves back east soon after, becomes a successful attorney. Ántonia marries and has more children. She is happy and Burden is happy for her. With his money, he is able to help Ántonia and her family. At the end of My Ántonia Burden reminisces how this woman, from the time they were both children, shaped his life, both the good and the bad.

My Ántonia is not just the story of two people. It is the story of our American ancestors who tried to make a life of the rough terrain of the frontier, some who were recent immigrants, and others whose family had been living in America for generations. My Ántonia tells of embracing both family and community. It’s a story of challenges and successes, trials and triumphs.

What I love about My Ántonia is how Cather captures me with her descriptions of a girl I feel I know and all through the lens of man, Jim Burden. Often, when women’s lives are told through the memories of men they are so one-dimensional and fulfill limited themes-the silly little girl, the sainted wife and mother, the lonely spinster, the “good time girl” and so on. But Ántonia is so vivid and real as is the landscape of America in her younger years. Published in 1918, My Ántonia remains a classic, one that should be read and treasured for years to come.