My dad pressed 'My Ántonia' by Willa Cather on me when I visited a couple of weeks ago, it having been pressed on him in turn by my second-cousin Molly when they visited the US last month to scatter my uncle Den's ashes in the Smokey Mountains.
It is one of those books in which very little happens. I mean life happens, but just an ordinary one. Well, I mean an ordinary life for early 20th century Nebraska, but one which seems extraordinary as a reader in early 21st century Britain. It is narrated by Jim Burden, an orphaned boy who is sent to live with his grandparents on a farm, and the family's longstanding relationship with their recently arrived Bohemian neighbours, the Shimerdas, and most particularly with their daughter Ántonia. The story tracks the growing up of this young boy and the intense friendship that develops between the two of them, waxing and waning over the passing years but remaining equally significant to both. While this is essentially a book about Ántonia, it is also one about the community they live in, and the beauty of the place itself.
"When spring came, after that hard winter, one could not get enough of the nimble air. Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter was over. There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only - spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm high wind - rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfolded on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring." (p. 119-20)
After a time the family move into town, the grandparents becoming too old to farm, and wealthy enough to afford it. This portrait of Frances, the eldest daughter of their neighbours, the Harlings, seems to capture something of the nature of the community bonds that are so important to Cather:
"Frances was dark, like her father, and quite as tall. In winter she wore a sealskin coat and cap, and she and Mr Harling used to walk home together in the evening, talking about grain-cars and cattle, like two men. Sometimes she came over to see grandfather after supper, and her visits flattered him. More than once they put their wits together to rescue some unfortunate farmer from the clutches of Wick Cutter, the Black Hawk money-lender. Grandfather said Frances Harding was as good a judge of credits as any banker in the county. The two or three men who had tried to take advantage of her in a deal acquired celebrity by their defeat. She knew every farmer for miles about: how much land he had under cultivation, how many cattle he was feeding, what his liabilities were. Her interest in these people was more than a business interest. She carried them all in her mind as if they were characters in a book or play." (p.150)
The book is full of the ordinary life of people in the town and on the prairie. It is almost as if Willa Cather wants to capture this life for posterity, as if she knows that it will not last. She makes reference to how the land with soon be divided and fenced and the way the young people want to escape; in fact it seems to be what people want for their children, that they go out into the world to seek their fortune and not have to toil so long and hard as their forbears. I will leave you with this lovely quote from nearly the end of the book (no particular spoiler there) because it captures Ántonia as some kind of symbol of the life and times that the book is about. She is strong and self-reliant and determined and Jim loves her, and reading his recollections I did too:
"Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade - that grew stronger with time. In my memory that was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Ántonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came back home in triumph with our snake; Ántonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognise by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab apple tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of the planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." (p.353)