This week, I’ve picked Willa Cather’s My Antonia. It’s a book I read a part of my AP English course in my senior year of high school and recall enjoying it a great deal more than many of the other assigned books that were part of the curriculum.
Two decades later, I picked it up again, partly on a whim and partly out of a desire to visit an old friend and see if it lived up to my memories.
The good news is that not only did it live up to my fond memories of it, it exceeded them. I’ll admit that I’d forgotten portions of the novel, making it feel at times like an entirely new reading experience while at others feeling like I was spending time with an old friend.
Told as the affectionate reminisces of Jim Burden on his lifelong friendship and love for Antonia Shimerda, I couldn’t help but feel as if My Antonia is Little House of the Prairie for grown-ups. After being orphaned, Burden moves to his grandparents’ home on the prairie, meeting the immigrant family the Shimerdas along the way. Jim forms a bond with the family, especially their daughter Antonia. Over the course of the novel, Jim and Antonia come into and out of each other’s lives at various points — the death of her father (a suicide in one of the novel’s more vivid sections), moving to town, growing up, getting married and raising kids.
I suppose if this novel were written today, Jim and Antonia would eventually end up together. However, Cather doesn’t go for the obvious romantic resolution, instead allowing the reader to fill in the blanks on the unspoken love that exists between Jim and Antonia. (The edition I picked up from my local library includes a discarded prologue that has an older, more cynical Jim reflecting on his love for Antonia and seeing her as the “one who got away.” I’ve got to admit I think the novel is better with the revised introduction that is included in most editions). This is a far richer, more nuanced love story than you’ll find in many of contemporary novels claiming to have a love story for the ages.
Re-reading this one, I was struck by some of the simply elegant passages and scenes of this era in American history created by Cather. I will admit that visiting this one again, I am (once again) curious to pick up more works by Cather.
I’m happy to report that this one fully lived up to my memories of it. In fact, it may have been better the second time than it was the first.