I planned to read this novel (or re-read it) this week after popping it on my Readalong schedule for this month, Elle and Bill having both suggested they’d choose it to read from my massive TBR. I then undermined myself completely by grabbing “Queenie” from my new purchases and then having the peculiar combination of not that much time to read and not being able to put it down. So “My Antonia” was started a bit late, and finished today, and apologies to Bill, whose review was all ready to go two days ago (AND he read two other Cathers first!).

I received this book in my LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa last Christmas (I have a horrible feeling that I haven’t got up to the ones from 2018 in my TBR yet, so maybe I’d better go back to chronological reading next month!), from the lovely Cornishgirl. It was one of my Honorable Mentions in my Best Reads for 2005 post, however I started blogging part way through 2005 and must have read it earlier. I will admit now that I had it mixed up with “A Lost Lady”, which, to be fair, I read in 2006.

Willa Cather – “My Antonia”

(25 December 2019)

A small but beautifully crafted portrait of the hard life of settlers in the Midwest of America, both those from other parts of America and those from Europe and Russia. It’s also apparently a thinly veiled portrait of Cather’s own life, with her gender switched to the narrator’s, but I read it without thinking too much of that, for the social history and description. Being an Oxford Classic, there are copious notes which add all the detail if you want it (and also lots of detail about plants, history and terms which make it peppered with asterisks on some pages – I like to feel a bit smug when I know what something is, I have to admit).

Jim Burden meets his new neighbours, the Shimerdas, on his first day in Nebraska after travelling there from Virginia to live with his grandparents. Their stories run in parallel, with a strong theme of neighbours helping each other out which chimes with these lockdown days. Other Bohemian inmmigrants fill in more of the different paths lives could take, and there’s triumph and tragedy as there always will be when living so close to the edge of survival. I love the detail and the nature, and it reminded me of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with their move from the hardships of the country to softer living in the town. The nature and descriptive writing is beautiful and evocative, even if this is the Midwest and not the South-West, which I know better personally and have enjoyed reading about in her other books.

Some reviewers have mentioned how Antonia is not really described that much, but the title is “MY Antonia” and she is seen from all these different perspectives – Jim’s, her father’s, her mother’s, her friends’, her eventual husband’s and childrens’. It’s unbearably poignant in places – her carefully left message with the new tenant of the farm when she moves away, knowing it will reach Jim and his grandmother eventually, the story of Otto the hired man who is so integral to the farm and then is gone in an instant …

I loved the theme, too, of women working as hard as or in the place of men, both Antonia and Frances Harling, and other of the hired women making their own way in life and living strong, muscular and successful lives. The description of Samson the musician’s awakening to the piano is powerful but a weird interlude in this odd but indeed powerful novel that I was glad to revisit.

I’m still working my way through “Hidden Figures”, which is excellent but long and deep. I am breaking off from that to read a book for Kaggsy and Simon’s 1920 Club this weekend, so anyone reading that, I’ll be finishing it over the next week and reviewing it then. Happy reading, everyone! If you’ve read this one, please comment or link to your review! And watch out for some Book Confessions on Tuesday …