Monday, September 24, 2007

My Antonia

How did I Come add My Antonia to my favorite books list? A number of years ago, some friends and I had an informal book group. Different members would pick the books we would read. A friend picked My Antonia. I know I would not have picked it up on my own. I started reading it grudgingly (I have since read 3 other novels by Willa Cather). However, I was quickly captured by the story and especially the shimmering beauty of the language. Descriptions such as the following captivated me.

" We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to stillness. In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.
"Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
"Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie."

How can one deny the sheer beauty of such language? However, the novel throbs with power as it tells the story of the pioneer who heroically breaks and tames the "wild Prairie", as his plough breaks the clods and renders the soil suitable for farming. Some are conquerors others are conquered. Then the time of the pioneer passes and fades into history.
At the close of the story, the narrator, Jim Burden, reminisces, "I took a long walk north of town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again."
Cather has painted and woven a rich tapestry. The land itself throbs and vibrates with life. Some break themselves against the land, others flee from it, but the pioneer conquers it; and then fades away to a faint memory. But the land lives on forever.


sherrie said...

Hi Joe,
I read this book on your recommendation about 12/13 years ago, and what a treat. The only Willa Cather I had previously read was O Pioneers!, which I really enjoyed, but I was not planning to read any others until you raved about it. You are right about My Antonia -- the language made me feel like I was experiencing the plow in the sunset while standing in those Nebraska fields. I'll always be glad you got me to read it.


(I feel like I've disrespected Willa Cather by my unrefined and limited use of the English language. Oh well.)

Joe said...

You actually read My Antonia at my recommendation. Wow!! The descriptions do indeed make one feel the beauty of the Nebraska plains.