Gem of the Prairie – “My Antonia” by Willa Cather
Here’s my grand confession: Prior to this reading, I’d never picked up one of her works. Sometimes I’m a sham of a booknerd, I know.
Now, my typical instinct when I think of “Prairie Tales” (as I like to call them) is to assume the book I’m about to read will lean toward the dull side – or, will read like an episode of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” (CBS has ruined me, I tell you.) So, it’s with mad pleasure that I’m thrilled to announce that Willa Cather’s sense of humor and gift for creating likable, immediately believable characters, showed me I was wrong.
In 1918’s “My Antonia,” a little boy named Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as a Bohemian family. This family includes a young girl named Antonia. Jim and Antonia become fast friends and go through life side by side, with occasional bursts of romantic interest. The book charts them from childhood to parenthood, and does so in five sections. Of these sections, the one I was most interested in is the second – “The Hired Girls.” In this book, Antonia and other young country girls come to the city to get hired as maids, and find themselves swept into a world of boys and dances. It’s the book in which we meet perhaps the novel’s most fascinating figure, Lena Lingard. She’s a surprisingly bold, successful, and independent woman for the time period she was written to have existed in. Lena and Jim will later have a romance all their own.
The book explores darker turf as well, though these moments are kept quick. During the very first winter Antonia’s family lives in Nebraska, her father shoots himself. The passage is strikingly written and very touching.
Ms. Willa Cather deserves all her accolades. She was a really strong writer in total control of her game. Charming, lively, and much funnier than expected, “My Antonia” is a gem.
(SideNote: I’m always interested to learn tidbits like this. The Dogfish Head Brewery (Delaware) has a “My Antonia” beer that they’ve created. So, Willa Cather joins Kurt Vonnegut in that elusive list of “Authors with Tribute Beers.”)