Ántonia’s apple orchard

Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia holds a special place in the hearts of both Mr. Glad and me, perhaps in our conjugal heart ? by reason of our sharing the story together more than once, and reading it on our own as well. When I’ve read it aloud it’s not uncommon for me to start sobbing at places in the narrative where the pathos hits home.

I was surprised to read recently a review in which the reader did not enjoy Cather’s writing, saying it was dry and lacking emotion. Those qualities might be why I appreciate her skill at capturing the story and drawing us in. Cather gives us the perspective of Jim, and we experience with him as narrator the various levels on which he is in love with our heroine and all that she represents, and he makes us fall in love with her, too.

Our differing response from the reviewer above probably has something to do with what we bring to the story. Though we haven’t lived in Nebraska or known any Bohemians, perhaps we are like Jim (and Willa Cather) in our grieving for the past, for the lifestyle of the pioneers and their farm life, for the good hardworking people we have lost; as I understand it, that was a theme that reappears in many of her works, but she accomplishes it without what might be called “emotional” prose. Mr. Glad and I both have farming in our roots, and our love for nature and the outdoors (and for people) is only encouraged and expanded by reading books like this.

I thought to transcribe some passages from the book on my blog, representative snatches for my own enjoyment and yours, as a way to savor again some moments from my reading experience, and perhaps introduce people who haven’t yet made friends with these characters and their world.

In the novel, there is no question but that Jim must leave the country life and go away to school and to city life. The passage below is from the last part of the book when he returns many years later for a visit, and I appreciate the way it conveys something of Ántonia’s character and also the mood of this season of the year.

At some distance behind the house were an ash grove and two orchards: a cherry orchard, with gooseberry and currant bushes between the rows, and an apple orchard, sheltered by a high hedge from the hot winds. The older children turned back when we reached the hedge, but Jan and Nina and Lucie crept through it by a hole known only to themselves and hid under the low-branching mulberry bushes.

“As we walked through the apple orchard, grown up in tall bluegrass, Ántonia kept stopping to tell me about one tree and another. ‘I love them as if they were people,’ she said, rubbing her hand over the bark. ‘There wasn’t a tree here when we first came. We planted every one, and used to carry water for them, too — after we’d been working in the fields all day. Anton, he was a city man, and he used to get discouraged. But I couldn’t feel so tired that I wouldn’t fret about these trees when there was a dry time. They were on my mind like children. Many a night after he was asleep I’ve got up and come out and carried water to the poor things. And now, you see, we have the good of them. My man worked in the orange groves in Florida, and he knows all about grafting. There ain’t one of our neighbors has an orchard that bears like ours.’

“…The afternoon sun poured down on us through the drying grape leaves. The orchard seemed full of sun, like a cup, and we could smell the ripe apples on the trees. The crabs hung on the branches as thick as beads on a string, purple-red, with a thin silvery glaze over them. Some hens and ducks had crept through the hedge and were pecking at the fallen apples.”

–Willa Cather

11 thoughts on “Ántonia’s apple orchard

  1. I read My Antonia for the first time just a couple of years ago. I had tried Cather in my teens, I think, perhaps O Pioneers…and didn’t like it very much. However, I brought maturity to My Antonia and did like it…very very much. I am still haunted by the wedding party and the wolves scene. Powerful! So very powerful. And i, too, cried at parts. So maybe it wasn’t Cather or her writing at all. Perhaps it was me all along! Loved this post.

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    1. Grad, I had a similar experience with her book Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I was too young, in various ways, to appreciate the first time I read it. Then I read it again in preparation for a trip to the town where it is set, and with my broadened 🙂 mind I loved it very much. I also didn’t care for O Pioneers… You’re right, that wedding party scene is one that sticks in the memory, and “haunting” is the word for it.

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  2. I love Willa Cather and I loved your book review. My Antonia is not a comfortable book for me as I cry so much. When Jim goes back and finds Antonia, I think still remains one of the most startling things I have ever read. It isn’t the stories so much as Willa Cather and her ability to write. Her words bring me to tears as I have seen art work by the masters have the ability to make me cry as they have captured life. That is what I see when I read her books.

    My Mom’s favorite book was Death Comes for the Archbishop, she loved that book. I tried to read it and while it is good, it didn’t speak to me like it did her. I think I need to reread it.

    Lovely review.

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    1. Your comment confirms that the emotion is not in book itself, but in the engagement we have with the work because of the “magic” an author can do. Have you ever written a blog post about your mother? If so, I would like to read it and become acquainted with her, a fellow lover of good books.

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  3. I have never read Willa Cather. But this makes me think I might remedy that at some point. From your review I get an inkling of an author somehow similar to Wendell Berry? Any validity to that? Love the quotes you shared with us. It sounds very bittersweet, the story.

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  4. I love love love Willa Cather. Seriously considered naming the baby Willa. My grandfather, a lover of books and true autodidact, gave me My Antonia when I was a young teen and I devoured it, along with several other of her novels. Now I reread them every so often and always find something new and beautiful to notice. It never struck me before reading this that maybe part of the reason my grandfather loved that book was that he grew up in an apple orchard in Illinois. I can understand why Cather’s style is not loved by everyone, but she definitely captured the beauty and the spirit of the people and places of the plains states.

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  5. I have never read My Antonia, and it has been on my list of things to read for a long time. I’ve read several other books of Willa Cather and I too appreciate her dry and sometimes emotionless style of writing, because it let’s us feel what we need to feel, rather than be told what to feel. I read Death Comes for the Archbishop after a visit to New Mexico, and fell even more in love with that state because of the book. But, with a baby on the way, it is very hard for me to read the things that make me cry, because EVERYTHING makes me cry! So maybe I should wait a few months to pick it up? What do you think? Besides, I am immersed in a re-reading of The Brothers Karamazov right now.

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