02 October 2012
A week ago my book club met to discuss our reading of Willa Cather's novel My Antonia. The title character's family are immigrants from Bohemia, bound for the tall grass prairie of Nebraska at the beginning of settlement of the Great Plains by dryland farmers. Though Cather's prose is lyric and evocative of that sweeping sea of grass beneath the infinite bowl of prairie sky, the story is decidedly character-driven.
I was pleasantly surprised to find so much personal resonance in the novel. You see, my mother's parents also immigrated to Nebraska from Bohemia (though a few decades later than the book's events). Scattered throughout the narrative are details which piqued memories of that half of my family (my father's family arrived in Montana, where I grew up, by a series of moves originating in colonial Virginia, but that's another tale). Like Antonia's father, my mother's father was born in Prague. It's a place I've long wanted to visit, to spend time exploring. Like Antonia, I grew up on a prairie farm, then in a farming community.
The story's narrator and protagonist is a boy named Jim Burden, whose family lives near Antonia's Shimerda family. Antonia is four years older than Jim, and even though later in their lives there is the hint of "what-if" romance, their relationship remains filial, best friends. Another parallel ~ at a farm where my father worked (when I was age 4 through 6 years old), my first and best friends were the farmer's daughters. Phyllis was a few years older than I, Sylvia a few years younger. We remain in touch to this day, sixty years later. Though we've seen each other only once or twice.
Another small, piquant touch ~ at one point in the story, Antonia as an adult makes a Bohemian fruit-filled pastry called kolaches for her family. My mother made kolaches (see image above) when I was young, but fell out of the habit. I loved them.
My Antonia was first published in 1918. It has remained relevant through the years, and was one of many books which "promoted regional American literature as a valid part of mainstream literature". Cather masterfully weaves characters in and out of the flow of time. Some make only a brief appearance, others resurface further on in the narrative. It is a quick read, one which provides a window onto another time and place. We observe Jim and Antonia's respective experiences in childhood, early adulthood, and middle age, each episode inviting one to compare it to one's own life, one's own choices. What if I had done this differently? What if I had said (or left unsaid) the words in my thoughts? What if ... ?