My Antonia (1918)

by Willa Cather

My Antonia is a fond reminiscence about growing up on the Nebraska frontier at the turn of the century, when European immigrants were arriving to farm the land.

Jim Burden, now a successful New York attorney for a railroad, is prompted by an old acquaintance to write about their Nebraska childhood and a Bohemian girl who was "the central figure." Jim titles his memoir "My Antonia" for that girl.

Jim was 10 when he was orphaned and went to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Meeting the neighboring farmers, Bohemian immigrants by the name of Shimerda, Jim hit if off with their daughter Antonia. Together they explored the plains environment and worked on Antonia's English. Their friendship ebbed and flowed through various incidents and hardships until Jim left for college, but their paths were destined to be different: Jim went to college and law school and became an attorney in the big city. Antonia quit school after her father's suicide; she worked on the farm and as a hired domestic in town, became pregnant and was abandoned by the child's father, and returned to the farm. Jim never forgot Antonia and what she meant to him, however. At the end of the book he visits her for the first time in many years and finds her married happily, successfully farming with her husband, and the mother of a slew of children. Jim, in contrast, is less content.

There are two great characters in My Antonia. Besides Antonia herself, a strong, proud, and heroic survivor, the other is the land, "the material out of which countries are made." Cather allows Jim to be nostalgic about both while not minimizing the struggles of the pioneers who first plowed the prairie. My Antonia preserves for posterity a picture of both the settlers and the landscape that were nearly gone by the time Cather wrote.


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