Sunday 13 November 2011

My Antonia by Willa Cather

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.

Source: Library
First Published: 1918
Score: 3.5 out of 5


  1. I don't think I've read an American literature either. This sounds different and interesting. Thanks.

  2. I still have not read this book (not sure why), but I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  3. I intend to read this for the Back to the Classics challenge next year. Sometimes a cozy type of plot is just what we need. I would recommend a similar type of book set in the Canadian prairies called Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso. I was completely taken with it and what you wrote about My Antonia reminds me of it.

  4. Sam,
    This is one of my favorites. I picked it up as I was largely unfamiliar with literature describing this lifestyle in the Midwest. I love the strength of Antonia's character even if she does appear a little harsh at times. The pace is certainly slow and I think perfect when conveying this storyline. It's a great Fall read, in my opinion, although I'm not sure why I like these reads so much during this time of year. Having just come back from that area, I started in on O Pioneers!, which is very similar. Great review!

  5. Jinky, it was an interesting book. Definitely very different from English Lit.

    Diane, thanks for taking the time to visit my blog.

    Teacher/Learner, I hope you enjoy it, it's a perfect autumn/winter read. I will add your recommendation to my wishlist.

    Beth, I found all the Midwest stuff fascinating as it really took a lot of determination and courage to migrate there and start a life. And it does fit perfectly with autumn.

  6. I'm so glad you got a chance to read Cather! Although I love My Antonia, O Pioneers! is my favorite so far. I have several more of her books waiting in my tbr pile.

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  8. I have not read anything by this author (as yet). Making a note of this one.

  9. I have to agree with JoAnn...I really liked My Antonia, but loved O Pioneers! so much more. I think there is more real feeling in it. I'm glad you read it though! I was wondering how the immigrant topics would to a non-American...I really liked you observations.

  10. Wonderful review. I recently read O Pioneers! and many years ago read Death Comes to the Archbishop. I bought them in a set with My Antonia and am slowly getting around to all three. I don't know why it's taking me so long. I enjoyed the other two and am glad to have My Antonia to look forward to!

  11. JoAnn, now I think I should have started with O Pioneers!

    Melody, I found the immigrant sections among the most interesting in the book. We're a bit of a mongrel nation in the UK anyway, with all the invasions we have had in history! :P

    Susan, my edition also had a biography of Cather and she was such an interesting person to read about too.

  12. Thank you for pointing me towards this review, Sam! It sounds very Montgomery-ish. In which case I'm bound to like it. :D... Like you, American Lit is a new experience for me. Even though I studied it at university, I never really care much for it. I was too steeped in English Lit to care!... However, my plunge into some good American stuff this year has me yearning for more! I'm quite enjoying my journey.... :)