Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Classics Project: My Antonia

It's been a while since I've reviewed a work of fiction. I've been so busy with school and other things, not to mention my recent nonfiction binge, but finally I've gotten around to it. And what a great book to jump back in with: Willa Cather's My Antonia.

My Antonia is the story of a boy growing up on the frontier of rural Nebraska, but more importantly, it's the story of a family of Bohemian immigrants and their daughter, Antonia (AN-toh-NEE-ah). Even though the story is told from the POV of the young man, Antonia is the sun his world revolves around. In a way, this is a small story. It's a coming of age story. It's a small town story. The scope is entirely limited to this one young man's life out in the prairies of Nebraska, to the people he knows, and the little pieces that make up their lives. Yet in another way, this story is as sprawling and magnificent as those fields of wheat, plowed into the land by sheer force of human will. As vast and grand as the blue sky that stretched over these pioneers bringing rain and wind and hope for a good crop.

Willa Cather skillfully paints the landscape as background and metaphor for the people who live there. Or perhaps, Antonia is the metaphor. She is strong, smart, kind. She works hard. She is never described as "pretty," instead we hear of her strong hands that can herd cattle. Her strong legs that can push a plow. Her burning, life-filled eyes that scorch themselves into the mind of one young man. She also never forgets the land that she left behind. In a way, this makes her the ultimate symbol for America. An immigrant, strong, hardworking - always pushing toward progress, but looking back to tradition, to where she came from. Idealistic, but flawed.

Because the reader experiences this story through the young man, we see his flaws arguably more than we see hers. He thinks he knows her. He thinks he's capable of understanding the world that created this young woman. He thinks it is the same world that created him. He judges her for passions, her lack of conventional propriety. He puts her up on a pedestal and pities her when she does not meet his narrow, privileged expectations. This is not to say he is an unlikable character. He's smart and has big dreams. He befriends her despite her immigrant status (or perhaps because of it). He loves the strength of her, the brightness that follows her. He chooses her over the doe-eyed Swede, Lena Lingard. But he is limited.

In a way, this book is entirely different from anything I've read before. The plot is gentle and real. There are no catastrophes, even the broken twists of life are written as normal and not melodramatically tragic. The story is as small as a single, not particularly spectacular, life, but as broad and far reaching as the prairie. Yet for me, there is something deeply familiar.

Like Antonia's family, my ancestors immigrated from Bohemia. They moved to the frontier of Nebraska, giving up their city trades, and choosing to work the land. They became part of that land. Their plows broke the soil, creating furrows of families that grew and expanded and survived. My connection to these mythical ancestors is tenuous at best. It is there in the poppyseed kolaches my mother makes. In the ridiculously vowel-barren family name on my grandmother's side (Hrdlicka; four consonants before they even get to a vowel!). It is there in the tiny, wood-bound bible I have in my china cabinet, the language foreign, but intrinsically fascinating. I don't have particulars. No detailed stories of pioneer women and their strength. It has all been blown away like sod in the prairie winds. In a way, I put these ancestors on a pedestal, just like that young man. They were idealized portraits of the attributes I find most compelling. But, like him, I will never truly understand their world.

My Antonia became something so much grander than a simple coming of age story. It filled the gaps in my roots with fertile soil, and whether the specifics are anything like the truth, it doesn't matter. Willa Cather reaches a broader truth. A resonating, simple, strong truth. She articulates that feeling of losing oneself in the vastness of the world around you, the magnificent grandeur of the past and the frontiers yet to come. In her words, "At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."