This book really doesn't have a plot. It's the story of the lives of Jim Burden and his friends, family, and neighbors, living in a small town out on the Nebraska prairie. Yeah, stuff happens...kids grow up, people die, people are betrayed, women get pregnant...you know, life. But there's no real plot; the book is almost just a series of episodes in these people's lives. So why did I find this book so great? Because Cather gives this story an incredible tone...a tone of wistful longing, of nostalgia. The inscription at the beginning of the book is from Virgil: "Optima dies...prima fugit". I never learned latin, but one can decifer this..."Optima" is optimal, "dies" is days, "Prima" is like prime, or primary, i.e. first, and "fugit" is flees, like a fugitive. (See, who needs to study Latin anyway?) "The best days...flee first". Things used to be better. The good old days. It's all downhill from here. You get the picture. The story opens with an introduction by another (unidentified) narrator. In the introduction, we learn that Jim's life is disappointing, and that he looks back longingly on his memories of Nebraska, particularly of the Bohemian immigrant Antonia. So the book starts out nostalgic for an idyllic prairie past, and it never lets up. Yet, I never felt manipulated, and the book never falls into melodrama. No, Cather is good. Real good. And I have the wadded up tissues to prove it.
As I touched on in my last post, it's interesting to think about this book and "Main Street". The two were written within a year of each other, yet their views of rural small town life couldn't be different. "Main Street" is often scathing social commentary. But there's nothing scathing about "My Antonia". That's not to say that Cather is not aware of the problems of living in a small town. There are lots of problems in "My Antonia"...the American-born look down on the immigrants, there are tensions between protestants and catholics, and, as in "Main Street", there is the very great pressure to conform to social norms. But Cather focuses on the good, on the ties of family and friends, and of the indomitable spirit of the early settlers of the plains. In other words, on the good old days. Yep, they're gone forever. All we can do is look back, ever so longingly, and shed a tear for what we've lost. Nothing but more disillusionment ahead, to be ended only by death. But hopefully not before I finish the remaining 100 books on The List. Next up: Stendhal's "The Red and the Black".