I have to admit to not knowing much about American Literature. I know lots about English Literature but the only real American Literature I've read is Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms and I didn't like it much. Fitzgerald and Hawthorne are strangers to me, as are Zane Grey, Henry James and Melville. I never even read Little House on the Prairie whilst growing up.
My Antonia was a first attempt at rectifying this situation. Jim Burden, a lawyer, recounts his childhood on the plains of Nebraska and particularly his friendship with a Bohemian immigrant girl called Antonia. Rich in detail, it is a love letter to a way of living that has since been lost and a poem to American midwest.
I liked My Antonia as a coming of age tale. I've read other reviews where the major complaint is that not much happens in the novel, but I enjoyed the cosy, lazy Sunday afternoon pace and the descriptions of a childhood spent in the great outdoors. At certain times it did feel as though Cather was romanticising her own experiences of growing up on a farm, as none of the hardships ever felt particularly real. In their first winter in America, Antonia's family are caught unprepared and have little in the way of food or warm clothes. Antonia runs about barefoot in the snow in only a cotton dress, but even this is looked back on in a nostalgic sort of way.
Behind the cosy narrative, a lot of powerful themes were lurking. I read this as a tale of immigrant experience, of the separate classes that grew up of 'Americans' and 'foreigners'. In My Antonia this whole system is mocked as the foreigners are the resourceful, enterprising ones who by doing things that the Americans find distasteful, such as sending their daughters to work, are able to become more successful in the long run. But the boundaries between the two groups remain firm; Antonia and Jim could never have married.
There was also a lot on the theme of gender. Antonia and Jim were both androgynous characters, with Antonia taking on classically masculine characteristics such as physical strength and Jim having a lot of feminine elements. Throughout the book, the female characters are the strong ones. I thought this was interesting in the light of Cather's sexuality and how she herself used to dress as a man whilst she was growing up. It was nice to read a book in a rural setting where the women do more than keep the house and prepare meals.
Overall, My Antonia was a well written coming of age story that kept my interest. It had a cast of lively characters and evoked life on the plains very well. I would recommend it as a good example of American literature.
First Published: 1918
Score: 3.5 out of 5