My Antonia by Willa Sibert Cather
This beautifully written coming of age story takes place in the late 1800’s during the agricultural settlement period in Nebraska. It puts the reader right there on the American Plains, experiencing the kind of life those early prairie farmers lived. The novel is set up as the reminiscence of Jim Burden, an older man recalling the friendship he had throughout his life with Antonia, a neighbor girl who he was friends with during his youth.
Jim, lost his parents as a ten year old boy from Virginia, and was sent by train to live with and be raised by his grandparents who owned a farm in the isolated prairie lands of Nebraska. He arrives at the same time as an immigrant Bohemian family who have bought a neighboring farm. That family discovers they have been swindled by the owner, but have no more money, so are forced to live in the dugout “house” they now own.
Antonia is the 14 year old daughter of the unfortunate Bohemian family, whose members could speak no English. Antonia, a quick learner, becomes Jim’s companion, as he takes on the task of teaching her English. Together they explore the plants, animals, and landscapes of their new prairie environment that has become their home.
Once while exploring a prairie dog town they awakened a rattlesnake that was five and a half feet long. Antonia was terrified, but fortunately Jim was able to kill it with a spade before it struck. The event increases the younger Jim’s status in the older girl’s eyes. They become fast friends.
The hardships of those early farmers intensified during the winter, especially for Antonia’s family who were dirt poor and struggling to survive, despite the gifts of food and other items from Jim’s grandparents. Antonia’s father falls into depression due to the hardships of the new life he finds himself in and at leaving the security and comfort of his home country at the insistence of his wife, and shoots himself.
Without the father, hardship increases for Antonia’s family and she is forced to work the fields like her older brother, while Jim begins to attend the small local school.
Jim’s grandparents sell their farm and move into the nearby town. There Jim is introduced to the amenities and opportunities of town and gets to go to a bigger school. Shortly thereafter Antonia arrives in town, hired by a local family to cook, clean house, and look after the children. Many other young immigrant women, who had grown up living on poor farms, are also sent into service in town, so they could earn money to support their debt-ridden farm families.
Jim, Antonia, and other farm girls, all socialize at home gatherings, music, and dances that were available in the town. But as always happens, as time passes this group of friends scatters, going their own ways, each beginning their life journey in different parts of the country.
Jim becomes a scholar, then a lawyer in the East. Antonia who is deceived by a scoundrel promising marriage, ends up pregnant and in disgrace, living back at her family’s farm, but eventually finds the life she needs and deserves, marrying a good man, and creating a loving family on a prosperous prairie farm.
I found this to be a warm, life affirming novel, which was a joy to read. It was one of those tales that really put you into lives of people living in a different time and place.