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.”