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All the Great Prairie

October 29, 2008

My Ántonia
By Willa Cather

It’s probably a worn cliche, but it’s true: re-reading a beloved book is like reuniting with an old friend. All the warmth and laughter comes spilling out and one smiles benevolently at familiar memories and phrases. This is the kind of experience I had reading My Ántonia again. I last read it when I was sixteen, which now seems to have been my renaissance year for reading.

It’s the kind of book that doesn’t surprise you when you read it again, not like Woolf or Tolstoy or Proust. With those three, you’re always catching things you didn’t remember before–they still astound and startle even after a third or fourth re-reading. But Cather doesn’t possess that quality. Once you’ve read her novels, you remember the story line, you remember the details. Yet what keeps Cather fresh and pleasant again and again is the familiar warmth and beauty of her language.

She is a cozy formalist; she isn’t trying anything very radical with her narrative technique. Her stories, though subtly cognizant of the approach of realism and modernism, tend to follow predictable patterns. But they are in no way boring. Cather breathes such incredible life into both her characters and her landscapes that it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish them from one another. The hearts of her people are buried in the land. It is the earth, the expanse of the rugged American plains that mould these men and women.

Jim Burden is an admirable narrator, the sweet-tempered boyish idealist, and Ántonia is a peerless heroine. They survive because they do not follow a fairy tale recipe. If this book had been written by a lesser novelist, everything would have ended up happily for these two. Jim and Ántonia would have been married, had four or five lovely children, and lived the rest of their days in peaceful harmony on the Nebraskan plains. But the differences in their backgrounds (a middle-class white man, a poor immigrant woman) and stations require separate futures. As a child, Ántonia remarks insightfully on this divide, when Jim asks her why she has to be so rough like her brother:

“Why do you all the time try to be like Ambrosch?”
She put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”

Cather will not succumb to the lure of happy endings; she is here to write about life, in all of its tragic homeliness. And this is what brings me back, over and over again, to her novels. Cather’s characters endure because they are believable, so compelling that they seem almost tangible. Her sensitivity to the difficulties of the immigrant experience in the American West is remarkable.

 

Strong women are consistent in all of the Cather novels I’ve read (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, and her short stories). She was a strong woman herself, and seems to have little regard for the simpering, dainty women of the East. Her women propel the novels and, often, the men in their pages. She is particularly adept at demonstrating how the rigors of life in the early American West transformed the roles and identities of women. Women were no longer precious little lambs to be protected; women were now valuable livestock, needed to work the land and lead the family in ways they had not been required before. The tension that this produced in female identity is another issue that is constantly rising to the surface in the minds of her heroines.

Still, I believe Cather is at her best when she is writing about the land. Reading her novels always fills me with this fiery desire to go West, to walk in the stark loneliness of the plains and see the land that seems to herald the end of the world. In one of my favorite passages, in the beginning of the novel, young Jim is describing his first impressions of Nebraska:

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

Her language is not grand, but it is precise and it is perfect. She creates images that resonate with the mind and the heart, and so she creates novels that persistently delight, even many years later.

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