I wanted to read a Willa Cather novel having seen her recommended elsewhere, a search in two branches of Waterstones came up dry and the only one of her books available on Kindle was My Antonia, so choice made for me! I'm rather glad it was made for me as I'm not sure I would have necessarily picked it if I'd had options and I'm genuinely glad I read it.
Published in 1918 it is part of Cather's prairie trilogy alongside O Pioneers! and The Song Of The Lark though the storylines are unconnected all the novels take place in prairie outpost settings.
In 'My Antonia' the lead character is Jim Burden an orphaned boy sent to live with his grandparents on their prairie farm. Whilst there he comes across the Shimerda family who are Bohemian immigrants, and one of the themes of the novel broadly speaking is the successes and failures of European immigrants in early America. The fact that the Shimerda's are Bohemian led to my acquiring new general knowledge as Bohemian in their sense is not as it is used today nor as it is used in 'Joe Gould's Secret' but means that they are from the area now known as the Czech Republic. Learn something new every day!
My Antonia is a fictional memoir in which main character Jim looks back upon his childhood and youth in which he knew Antonia Shimerda and the various changes in their relationship as they grew up. It's a fairly uneventful novel, more a portrait of a time, a place and a community though it is not the poorer for that. It is a nostalgic novel that brims with warmth, fond memories, kindness and love, to the extent that it feels like it could be a well written reflective autobiography. It has a sense of realism that is often lost in fictional stories.
Nostalgia seems to be the distinct theme of the novel experienced by multiple characters. Things were better 'in youth', 'in the old country' when they weren't necessarily so, the human trait of putting a certain gloss on the past.
I particularly liked the quote:
'In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again."
In later parts of the book Jim avoids Antonia through the fear that 'Antonia now' will ruin his memories of 'Antonia then'. This shows how certain memories become sacred to what made us who we are as a person, what we treasure from our past.
For a story which is essentially simple and not written in an overly challenging way, My Antonia has a resonance in the universal experience of what it is to be human, and as such is a special novel, belonging in the wider novel community to a select and distinguished club.
I enjoyed this novel very much and I'd say it was accessible to all readers and that everyone could find something to identify with in it. I will be on the lookout for other Cather novels if I can find them, O Pioneers! seems to have suddenly appeared on Kindle.
Read this. 9/10