Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 · Books

Reading Challenge 2016: First Book

My first completed book for the 2016 Reading Challenge is My Antonia by Willa Cather. This book fits in the category of previously read books from school. I first read My Antonia when I was in high school. At the time I liked the story well enough to have never gotten rid of the book! I carried it with me from home to home and consequently, it’s not in the best shape anymore. The cover is ripping and the spine is coming loose. I never could convince myself to get rid of it.

Last year while working through the Reading Challenge 2015 I read another of Willa Cather’s novels, O Pioneers! and thoroughly enjoyed it. Based on my revived appreciation of Cather’s work it was natural to select My Antonia as a book to reread.

While I enjoyed the book on my first time through, I absolutely loved it the second time. I’m sure my age and life experiences contributed to my enhanced appreciation of it.

My Antonia is the story of a young immigrant girl, Antonia Shimerda, who lives on the Nebraska prairie, along with her family. The story follows her life for maybe 30 years and is narrated by Jim Burden, as he recalls his memories of childhood.

Both Jim and Antonia arrive in Nebraska on the very same day. Jim is an orphan traveling from Virginia to Nebraska to be raised by his grandparents, while Antonia, the second of four children arrives with her family from the old country, Bohemia, for a chance at a better life.

Willa Cather (1873-1947) spent her formative years on the Nebraska prairie, moving there from Virginia when she was 9 years old, just like the narrator of My Antonia, Jim Burden.

Jim recounts the first time he sees the Shimerda family.

“I knew this must be the immigrant family the conductor had told us about. The woman wore a fringed shawl tied over her head, and she carried a little tin trunk in her arms, hugging it as if it were a baby. There was an old man, tall and stooped. Two half-grown boys and a girl stood holding oilcloth bundles, and a little girl clung to her mother’s skirts. Presently a man with a lantern approached them and began to talk, shouting and exclaiming. I pricked up my ears, for it was positively the first time I had ever heard a foreign tongue.” 

This is the story of making a new life in a new country, of the hard work involved in such an undertaking, especially for newcomers like the Shimerda family. The harsh realities of living in a sod house, a cave really, working from dawn to dusk in the fields, and struggling to eke out a living is not in the least sugar coated by Cather. Not at all. In fact, I recognized myself for what I am; a completely spoiled wimp!

I love the word pictures Cather paints of the prairie where Jim narrates his first impressions…

“…I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…

 

I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” 

Throughout the joys and sorrows, the hard endless work, the deaths and the births Antonia’s and Jim’s lives are interwoven. They are friends in the best sense of the word.

The book was hard to put down but I forced myself to do so. Yes, forced! I didn’t want it to end. If it ended too soon then it would be over and I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to know more of Antonia, to follow her life longer. Why was the book so short? I limited myself to no more than a chapter per day towards the end! That gave me time to mull the story over, to think about it longer.

There were times I cried like a baby as I read. Antonia’s life was so real. I would have loved to have known her.

Please do not miss this book. Put it on your to be read pile. You will not regret it!

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5 thoughts on “Reading Challenge 2016: First Book

  1. It's time to read this book.
    I'm also pacing myself with Glimpses of the Moon, such an interesting story.

    From your quotes, I think Willa C. paints beautiful pictures with words.

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  2. I loved Glimpses of the Moon. At one point I almost put the book down because I didn't want to know how it ended! I was afraid it wouldn't end the way I wanted it to. Perhaps I take books way too seriously!

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  3. Wow, that is quite the endorsement! I have only read Death Comes for the Archbishop and that was at least 25 years ago and I remember being bored. I am sure you are right about age and life experiences influencing not just what we read but how we read. So I need to pick up some Willa Cather again and see how I feel about her now.

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  4. I attempted to read Death Comes for the Archbishop but lost interest fairly quickly. I think Cather's experiences growing up on the Nebraska prairie breathes life into this book. The same can be said for O! Pioneers and Song of the Lark. I started Song of the Lark several years ago but didn't finish it. Now I want to pick it up again.

    I hope you rediscover Cather! I'm pretty sure you won't be sorry.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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