While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the colour and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet-iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. (from the Introduction to My Ántonia)
If you didn’t grow up in a little prairie town, the next best way to experience it is through Willa Cather’s writing. Set in late 19th century Nebraska, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a young man who comes of age on the prairie and forges a lifelong friendship with a slightly older Bohemian immigrant girl. The novel moves at a leisurely pace, as life probably did in those days. Farm life is filled with hard labor. Town dwellers are considered of a higher class, with more social and educational opportunities. Jim experiences both lifestyles, beginning on the farm as a young boy and moving to town when he reaches school age. Ántonia also eventually comes to town, to work in service for a local family. There’s a strong bond between the two, but one limited by age and class.
Cather paints a vivid portrait of frontier life. It’s easy to visualize the landscape, to feel the dust on your arms and legs, and the cold wind blowing around the house on a winter night. And as she describes the seasons, you feel like you’re right there:
There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only — spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind — rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I would have known that it was spring. (p. 120)
My Ántonia is deceptively simple. Cather recounts the simple events of prairie life: the harvest, tent dances, and town gossip. Years pass and events unfold with few plot twists. But as the novel moves toward its conclusion, there are moments of surprising depth and emotional impact which landed this book its 4-star rating.