My Antonia, by Willa Cather

We had one of our most engaged discussions ever while reading Willa Cather’s classic,  My Antonia. In the book’s epigraph, Cather quotes Virgil: “Optima dies…prima fugit,” which translates to “The best days are the first to flee.” The quote has two meanings. First, the book is a romantic look back at childhood and the happiness of the past. Second, the Virgil poem itself is about appreciating and living off the land.The book was first published 100 years ago and new editions continue to be marketed. More than 30 different versions, all with different covers, are available on Goodreads. Most BBB members had a different cover, some showing just the land, others showing Antonia, others combining the two, others using only type and graphics.

Some topics of our chats:

How and why did Cather become such a successful writer at a time when other women were writing under pseudonyms? One reason: She found a home at McClure’s magazine, one of the most active muckraking publications, which gave her credibility as well as a platform.

Did Cather choose to write the book from the point of view of Jim because having a man tell the story might have been more acceptable to male editors? Perhaps, but maybe she did it simply because she felt that was the best was to tell the story.

Jim clearly loved Antonia, but their lives were defined too differently for the two to be together in that world at that time. To be a success, Jim had to leave the land and get more education, which pushed him farther away. To Antonia, however, success meant staying on the land.

Some of the “hired girls” also found success away from Nebraska, where they could redefine themselves and live on their wits and talents without the social restrictions of the city-country divide of class and status.

If Antonia’s father had decided to stay in the city after leaving his native Bohemia—settling in New York instead of Nebraska, for example—would he have had a fuller and longer life? Antonia’s mother, however, knew she could not fit in and moved the family far enough that her past could not follow them. Her husband paid the ultimate price and her kids had a life that was far more difficult than it needed to be.

While Antonia’s life was hard and often harsh, she was one of the happiest characters in the book. She knew who she was and where she fit in, and she embraced her own truths.

Cather’s descriptions of people and the land are so rich that I reread several passages just for the pleasure of the words. This book has one of my favorite lines, which I remember every time we spend the day traveling through Nebraska on our way to Colorado. When Jim first encounters Nebraska as a child, he observes, “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was, still, all day long, Nebraska.” Nevertheless, he clearly loved that land, as did Cather.

—Pat Prijatel

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