Thursday, January 22, 2015

Favorite Books: My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

I love books.  I'm most attuned to books when our nearby libraries in Chantilly and Centreville, Virginia have their April and October book sales. Sometimes just me, other times almost everyone in the family, go to the crowded sale and snap up huge stacks all of us, grandchildren too, plus visitors peruse for days, as they're heaped in higgly-piggly stacks on our dining room table. 

Then comes the arduous task of integrating them into our groaning bookcases, or hauling them back to the library donation bin, for the next book sale.  

The books that really enthrall are the out-of-print ones, travel, home decor-the full color, oversized ones that new, cost $40+, or the long forgotten novels of the 20th century.  I've built a fine collection of the golden years of English mysteries from these book sales, Eric Ambler, John Bingham, Josephine Tey, etc.  And all of Henning Mankell's Wallander stories.  

Now that we have another toddling grandchild in our house, I also look out for earlier children's books, specially alphabet books.  I found a lovely 1940s 'town and country' alphabet book at a thrift shop but it cost $47!!!  It was very cheaply made, just after WWII, with no inside cover paper over the cardboard, acid-yellowed paper, but the story!  It used bigger, more varied words than today's ABCs, plus different nouns to illustrate the letters.  I didn't buy it, and regret it now.

One year, I sent a dear friend a collection of books I'd selected for her at the book sale, including My Ántonia.  To my astonishment, she wondered why I thought she'd be interested in that high school book.  For me, on the other hand, it is my favorite American novel--even have an audio version we sometimes listen to on our long, summer drive from Virginia to North Dakota and Minnesota.  I never tire of this story, of it's struggling characters, and especially of Cather's exquisite descriptions of the Great Plains she plumbed so true. 

The Story
In the late 1880s, when 10-year old Jim Burden’s parents die in Virginia, his Nebraska grandparents arranged for him to travel west by train under the care of one of their farmhands, Jake.  The train conductor told them of a Bohemian family also on the train heading to Black Hawk, the town nearest his grandparents farm. 

“They can’t any of them speak English except one little girl, and all she can say is ‘We go Black Hawk, Nebraska.’  She’s not much older than you, twelve or thirteen, maybe, and she’s as bright as a new dollar.  Don’t you want to go ahead and see her Jimmy?  She’s got the pretty brown eyes too.”

At the train depot another hand is waiting to collect Jim and Jake for the arduous night-long wagon ride to the farm.  “He looked lively and ferocious...the top of his left ear was gone, his skin as dark as an Indian’s.  Surely this was the face of a desperado,” Jim speculated. He’d wiled away the long hours on the train reading Jesse James dime novels so his mind was primed for the West.

“I rode in the straw of the wagon box, covered with a buffalo robe...I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue...Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide...and peered over the side of the wagon.  There seemed to be nothing to see: no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields.  If there was a road I could not make it out in the faint starlight.  There was nothing but land--slightly undulating...I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.  I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it.  But this was the complete dome of heaven and all there was of it...Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out...”

The prairie is as much a character as any person in My Ántonia.  But it’s Ántonia that exquisitely, and simply captures the indomitable human capacity to adapt and flourish.  She watched her father disintegrate on the prairie.  He left behind in Bohemia a vibrant life of coffee shops and dining halls of central Europe, surrounded by fine music and fellow musicians.  In Nebraska he was trapped at the start of winter in a tiny underground sod hovel, like a badger, with his six family members.

Despite the novel’s realistic portrayal of the misfortune and tragedy of western settlement, it also captures the fertile ground of opportunity.  Literary critic H. L. Mencken wrote, "I know of no novel that makes the remote folk of the western farmlands more real than My Antonia makes them, and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing." 

Willa Cather was born near Winchester, Virginia in 1973.  At age 10 she moved with her family to a small settlement west of Red Cloud, Nebraska.  
At the University of Nebraska she discovered her
talent was writing.  After graduation, in 1896 she
wrote for magazines and later moved to New
York City where she focused on writing fiction.
“Every story I have ever written has been the
recollection of some childhood experience.” She
wrote 13 novels and several short story
collections.  In 1923 she was awarded a Pulitzer
Prize.  When Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize
in Literature he said that Cather should have won
the honor.  The character of Ántonia was inspired
by her child-hood Nebraska prairie friend Annie
Sadilek.  Cather never married.  She died in 1947.

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