I was born in Nebraska, and lived there until I was 21 years old. It’s always annoyed me to hear Coloradans complain about how ugly the drive on I-80 is through Nebraska. I’ve always thought two things: first, yeah, and I-76 in Colorado is so darn beautiful (picture my eyes rolling); and second, you are driving along an interstate highway which is almost never pretty.
I grew up in a medium-sized town of 10,000 people in the middle of Nebraska farmland. While I didn’t live on a farm, it is hard to not have farming be part of your life if you live in Nebraska, whether you live in Omaha or Wilber, NE. You hear farm reports on TV and radio, there are farm implement stores everywhere, if you drive on a blue highway, you are liable to get stuck behind a tractor, and weather reports are the main topic of conversation (“will it rain,” “will it ever stop raining,” “think it will stay dry long enough to get the corn in?”
Willa Cather’s Nebraska in My Antonia is beautiful. Her lyrical descriptions made me think about the loveliness of rolling fields of corn and wheat, and how pretty the trees are alongside the Platte River, which runs through most of the state.
For example: “July came on with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green.”
Or, “There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, …. 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 blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring.”
Cather’s characters were alive and interesting. How could you help but not love the narrator, Jim, so innocent and naive, and his grandmother and grandfather, so wise and so loving? Wouldn’t you want to be part of the evening gatherings at the Harling’s home, where they sang and played games? All of these folks were honest, down-to-earth Nebraska farmers, maybe not worldly, but good and kind.
And then there was, of course, Antonia. I don’t think there is a character in any other book that I love more than Antonia. I loved her as a child, having to take on so much responsibility because her parents really didn’t or wouldn’t. I loved her as a hard-working farm girl after her father died. I even continued to love her as she spread her wings a bit after coming to work in town. Who wouldn’t have wanted to dance a bit after such a difficult life?
But I think I liked her best in the last book, Cuzak’s Boys. She had so clearly found peace in her world, which would probably drive us insane. She was molding all of those children into wonderful people. And she loved her plain husband and her difficult and simple life. And throughout all of those years, she had loved Jim Burden in a way that wasn’t jealous or resentful. And furthermore, he loved her back. What a fine and beautiful friendship.
A couple of things made me sad. I was sad that it seems that Jim never married. I didn’t really get the impression from Cather that he didn’t marry because he was pining for Antonia. I think he was just so intent on his intellectual life that he didn’t find a life companion. Perhaps he was happy that way, but he so loved being around family that I couldn’t help but feel sad for him.
The other thing that made me sad was when Jim and his grandparents moved to town, and Otto and Jake didn’t go with them. Jim tells us, “Months afterward we got a card from Otto, saying that Jake had been down with mountain fever, but now they were both working in the Yankee Girl Mine, and were doing well. I wrote to them at that address, but my letter was returned to me, ‘Unclaimed.’ After that we never heard from them.”
One other thing: Cather tells us that Mr. Harling was a grain merchant and cattle-buyer. She says, “He controlled a line of grain elevators in the little towns along the railroad to the west of us, and was away from home a great deal.” I’m sure my sisters will agree that she could be talking about the stretch of Highway 30 between Grand Island and Columbus.
With little doubt, My Antonia is my favorite book ever. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.