I so want to like this book, I really really do. Ok, I do like this book. I so wanted to love this book, really really love it, but I didn’t. Maybe it’s because my last read, The God of Small Things, really captured my heart and attention and the language was so rich and filling, but this one fell a little flat for me. (Going to duck now while stones are thrown my way!). :)
My Antonia, as told by the narrator Jim Burden, is the story of growing up in a small settlement of Nebraska during the eighteen hundreds (the time period isn’t clear to me). After his parents pass away, young Jim travels from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. On his journey West he meets the Shimerda family, poor Bohemian immigrants trying to make their American start in the Midwest. He befriends the family, particularly Antonia, and throughout the novel he outlines how Antonia affected his life from the time that they were children until they parted ways as adults.
Although it seems from the title that the book is mostly about Antonia, it is also about Jim as he matures from an innocent child into an educated and worldly man. It is an unassuming novel that gives a glimpse into the daily lives of the early pioneers and their struggles through the deadly cold weather, extreme poverty, and the roughness of the land. But through all of the hardships, there is also a strong sense of community that brought these unlikely friends together–through playing with each other during the summer days, teaching each other lessons, attending dances together, and most of all supporting one another through the heartaches and lonliness that is so prevalent in these pioneers’ lives.
Antonia is a wonderful character–strong willed but also compassionate, she is full of life and has touched Jim’s life in so many different ways. I wish I could have gotten to know Antonia a little better, but Antonia and Jim were destined for very different lives as she stayed in the frontier as he outgrew the wilderness for a more refined existence. Due to a life changing experience when Antonia is young, she is forced to work the land and give up her education so that she can provide for her younger siblings and hope that they can have a better life. Because Jim’s situation is very different from Antonia’s their lives begin to diverge at a young age and most of the middle of the book moves away from Antonia and the story she and Jim share.
While this was a very pleasant read and I loved loved loved Cather’s descriptions of Nebraska throughout all of the different changes of season, it was a little less climactic than I was hoping for or expecting. And even though this book is about the relationships of the different characters I kept wishing that I knew more about each one. I think maybe part of the Jim’s allure of Antonia, though, is her elusiveness and uniqueness–maybe qualities that he does not quite understand but is trying to capture in his thoughts. It is clear that he cares very deeply for Antonia but in many ways she remains a mystery. I want more, Ms. Cather, than the 220 pages that you have given us!!
Have you read it? What did you think? Do you have another pioneer story you’d recommend?