I got an unusual lesson in “Never judge a book by its cover” while reading My Antonia. My book cover tells me that Antonia Shimerda elopes with a railway conductor after her father’s tragic death, and later comes back to the city. Once she’s back, she’s “unprepared for the lecherous reaction her lush sensuality provokes” because of the toiling country life she’s used to. Despite obstacles, however, she struggles toward happiness.
Anyone who has read this book might wonder what in the world this description is about. First, Antonia moves from the country to the city several years after her father dies, and a long time before there is ever any mention of a railway conductor. Second, she never elopes. She plans a wedding with a longtime sweetheart but gets jilted and left pregnant. And that’s a decade or so after her father dies. After that, she goes back to the country and never lives in the city again. Yes, she struggles toward happiness; that might be the only correct point given in my Bantam Classic version’s synopsis. I’ve never been so confused in comparison. I kept waiting for Antonia to elope…
My Antonia is told from the point of view of one of Antonia’s childhood friends, Jim Burden. It is a very quiet story, where the details of what does and doesn’t happen are very trivial in comparison with the spirit of the book. I can see why it would be difficult to come up with a summary. The book captures prairie life. Across the course of over three decades, we see what happens to people and land. Willa Cather is amazing in her descriptions. While not every person will agree with her style of writing – it isn’t my particular favorite style – it can definitely be said that she knows exactly what she’s doing when it comes to description. She is very decisive in her voice. Each stroke she paints is clear and definite. Lines such as
…everything was wonderful to [Lena], and everything was true. It was like going to revival meetings with someone who is always being converted
The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass…
give a very final view of the things they describe. It is clear that Willa Cather could see, really see, everything she spoke about. Her people and landscapes are alive. And while I am not a particular fan of excessive setting, she integrates the setting in a subtle way, and I found myself at times actually seeing the pictures of fields of red grass in front of me, rather than floating blindly along the words. That doesn’t happen too often with landscape for me; it’s one of those places I lack in imagination when I read.
Nothing spectacular happens in My Antonia, plot-wise. It really is a very quiet book. A quiet struggle that isn’t always a struggle, a quiet success that isn’t always a success. It’s slow, but not in the way of boring. More like in the way of a lazy summer afternoon. So that you just want to relax in a hammock when you read. That would have been nice.
A couple little mentionables: First, don’t read the stories about Peter and Pavel and the wolves or about the vagrant and the wheat thresher when you’re in the middle of a quiet lunch when your kids are sleeping. How I happened to catch both these stories mid-meal, I don’t know, but the irony was not funny. Or maybe it was. Second, I think I have to consider any book to be worth reading if the following lines occur (Antonia speaking first):
“Now, all you children be quiet, Rudolph is going to tell about the murder.”
“Hurrah! The murder!” the children murmured, looking pleased and interested.
And then later, a little parenthetical insert halfway through the murder story:
Here the children interrupted Rudolph’s narrative by smothered giggles.
If that doesn’t get you interested…