Friday, January 25, 2008

My Antonia - My Thoughts

I finished "My Antonia" last night.  I laughed, I cried.  Seriously, I cried.  Like a little schoolgirl.  And I hadn't even had any whiskey!  What gives?  Well, here's the deal...

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 grow up, people die, people are betrayed, women get 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".


Stefanie said...

It's a beautiful book, isn't it? The love story part of it is what carries it along I think. And the harsh life of living on the prairie makes one appreciate modern conveniences. I read the book years ago, but I remember the red canna flowers against the white house, how startling and out of place their color and delicateness was. If you get the chance, since you liked Cather so much, I'd highly recommend Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Trish said...

What a beautiful review--I'm glad you liked this one so much (makes me want to re-read it actually). Thanks for coming by earlier.