I'm new to Willa Cather, always meant to but never seem to have got around to her. I knew of the rift in her friendship with Dorothy Canfield Fisher after my DCF reading trail last year but not a lot more so this is where Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers is now regularly earning its keep. Something now tells me that My Ántonia may have been a good book to start with for its semi-autobiographical content.
Know Nebraska life and I sense I start to know Willa Cather and for anyone like me who doesn't quite know, to the exact latitude, where it is...
'I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun or air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.'
Through the eyes of Jim Burden, looking back on his own life and Ántonia 's from the moment they both arrive on the prairies from afar. Ántonia Shimerda as a fourteen-year old immigrant with her family from Bohemia, Jim as a ten-year old orphan, on his way to live with his farming grandparents and reading the Life of Jesse James on the train from Virginia .
'the only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.'
Jim and Ántonia may grow up in the same environment but their homes are vastly different. One most likely to generate warmth, happiness and an adult with a clear sense of all this, the other more inclined to sorrow and hardship, and as I read on and Jim and Ántonia's childhood friendship moves into an adult companionship, I readily sensed the point A.S.Byatt makes in her chapter on Willa Cather in her book of selected writings Passions of the Mind.
'She wove prose like a huge intricate cloth, covered with local detail, yet flowing in large loops and coils and connections.'
A.S.Byatt elaborates on the whole notion of the university educated Willa Cather, with her formidable intellect, turning her literary attentions to the
'new unformed or formless American subjects, the settlers and pioneers with their unrecorded lives and their diverse heritages.'
A.S.Byatt then pointed me towards another book gathering shelf-dust, Literary Women by Ellen Moers, wherein Willa Cather gets a good airing and for me, a newcomer to the prairie, this jumped out at me,
'Cather's greatness resides not in her womanliness as a writer but in the bardic role she played in the history of the prairie land. "The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman" : no line she wrote can more justly be quoted in tribute to her work.'
Early in the book, so hardly a spoiler, it is revealed that Jim is writing this account having just made contact with Ántonia again after a gap of many years. Jim is the youngest and the dilemma is will Ántonia always
see him as a child and I don't want to give away an ounce more
plot, which slightly limits what I can say, but if you haven't read the
book I don't want to spoil those moments of wondering that might happen for you, as they happened for me.
What I can say is that everyone will have their own versions of happiness, their own definitions and Willa Cather left this reader in little doubt as to whose was greater by the end of the book and in terms of possession, who does the Ántonia of My Ántonia truly belong to?
There are plenty of choices to consider.
It is all a beautifully elegiac tribute to people and relationships, the joys and tragedies often dealt with quite matter-of-factly, as they had to be in this harsh landscape pioneered just a few years earlier. Assumptions are nicely subvertes and all life is captured, pickled and preserved here, births, deaths, suicides, knitted socks as gifts and a Christmas scene which deserves to go in anyone's personal anthology of must-read Christmas extracts.
as Grandfather gently intones the Christmas day readings and prayers for his snowbound family you can feel the atmosphere
'He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use.'
Along with Betjeman's 'The bells of waiting Advent ring, the tortoise stove is lit again,' and that lovely carol singing chapter in Under the Greenwood Tree, and Little Women's 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug', chapter XI of My Ántonia is a winner.
So what will my verdict be for The Reader?
I can give it anything from 5* 'one of the best books I've read' to 0* 'don't bother'. but sorry, that would all be telling, they've already been kind enough to let me give the game away about which book it will be, you'll have to wait until the next edition of the magazine to find out the rest.
Scroll down to the next post for the chance to win one of six copies of My Ántonia, if like me you haven't read it you might not want to miss it and my thanks to The Reader for finally ensuring that I didn't.