Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Report: My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia is Willa Cather's masterpiece about life on the Kansas prairie at the turn of the century. Although I usually read non-fiction, the themes of this novel called to me; individualism, simplicity, spirituality and early feminism. I love to read classics, because they have proven to hold truth across the test time.

When I'm reading fiction, I enjoy thinking about how a person came to be a writer- what steps were taken. It isn't like other professions- there is no set path to pursue. Instead, you must practice, practice, practice and search your own heart to discover your voice. Cather did that ruthlessly throughout her unconventional life and this book is the result. My Antonia tells the story of two families on the American fronteir. One family has lived and worked the land for years, while the other are new immigrants from Bavaria.

Antonia is the Bavarian family's eldest daughter, and her story is told through the eyes of Jim, an orphaned boy sent to live with his grandparents in the unspoiled West. Her ruddy, earthy goodness enchants him and he spends his life trying to understand what makes her so full of life, even in the face of great sorrows and sacrifices.

I often copy down passages that are especially meaningful to me when I am reading- as a way of keeping track of the parts that strike a chord with me. Here are some favorites sections:

"[He] told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons at the time of persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way. The members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm this story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind and sunflower bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom."

In my opinion, freedom of worship and tolerance are this country's greatest asset. I love the imagery of people strewing flower seed as a symbol of hope and encouragement to those who follow later.

"There was a basic harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had strong, independent natures, both of them. They knew what they liked and were not always trying to imitate other people. They loved children and animals and music and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich hearty food and to see people eat it, to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. They ridiculed conceited people and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over delicate, but very invigorating."

This passage so eloquently describes the sort of person I strive to be; one who has worked hard to build a life that is pleasing to her and basks in the bombardment of sensory experience that is the great treasure of human life. My goal is to be like Antonia, awake and alive to the finite series of small moments that make life worth living.

"Do you know Antonia, since I've been away, I've thought of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister- anything a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me."

She turned her bright believing eyes to me and the tears came up in them slowly, "How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I've dissapointed you so? Ain't it wonderful Jim, how much people can mean to each other?"

Of course, it all comes back to love in the end. It would have been so easy for Cather to make this story a simple romance, but instead, she wrote about something more tangled and complicated. She described and celebrated another kind of love- a love based on friendship, and admiration. She wrote with an honesty and freshness that is still powerful today.

Have you read anything great lately? Do tell!

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