My ÁntoniaI first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. 


Willa Cather’s My Ántonia is considered one of the most significant American novels of the twentieth century. Set during the great migration west to settle the plains of the North American continent, the narrative follows Antonia Shimerda, a pioneer who comes to Nebraska as a child and grows with the country, inspiring a childhood friend, Jim Burden, to write her life story. The novel is important both for its literary aesthetic and as a portrayal of important aspects of American social ideals and history, particularly the centrality of migration to American culture.”

I guess I have mixed feelings about My Ántonia. It’s very sweet in some respects, but it also got on my nerves in others. Let’s start with the things I liked. I think the best thing about the book is the amazing description. As it says on the back of the Penguin edition, “Cather integrates evocative descriptions of the western prairie.” That’s definitely one of the things that struck me most while I was reading the book. I really felt like I was there in Nebraska with Jim. “Lots of description” can often translate to heavily overwritten, but My Ántonia was definitely not. It’s written in a somewhat older style, but it’s still very, very readable, and it goes quite quickly. There’s a lot of affection in the book, and it shines through in the writing. Especially the love of the land. Cather takes such care with how she writes about the landscape and nature, and it was beautiful to read. That was most certainly my favorite element. There’s also a lot of affection (as others have mentioned) in other aspects of the book, such as Jim’s regard for Ántonia. He’s definitely really protective of her. Which leads me to something that was annoying. 

As one might expect, the book is rather sexist, despite being written by a woman. Ántonia is from a poor immigrant family, and she has to work in the fields alongside her brothers. And yet, this somehow demeans her. That was slightly jarring; more jarring was the fact that Jim hates the fact that Ántonia bosses him around a bit, even though she is four years older than him. Bossiness is not a good thing, but because she’s a girl, she’s supposed to defer to Jim in everything. 

My description thus far makes the book seem completely sweet. It is, but there’s also an underlying sadness to the story; Ántonia’s family doesn’t have much, and unfortunate circumstances always seem to befall them. There was one scene in the first half of the book that was particularly arresting; it’s winter, freezing cold, and the description of the living conditions of her family is just really saddening. 

Another thing that I noted was the interesting balance between charity and the lack of it; Jim’s family certainly helps Ántonia’s a lot, but sometimes they’re reluctant to help, and sometimes his grandmother doesn’t give them everything. (Which is probably good). This is no Little Women where the March sisters give up their Christmas breakfast for a poor German family. Jim’s family isn’t so rich, and they have to survive too. 

I wasn’t quite sure to expect from My Ántonia, and I did enjoy it, although for some reason it was kind of unsettling. 

Read My Ántonia:

  • if you like Willa Cather
  • if you like stories set on the plains

273 pages. 

Rating: ****

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