My Ántonia, Willa Cather’s vivid portrayal of immigrant life on the American prairie during the nineteenth century, has been a favorite since it first appeared in 1918. The harsh—yet forgiving—land, the growth and maturity of Jim Burden, the narrator, the intriguing characters, and the force of Ántonia’s strength all combine to make this novel exceptional.
Cather’s style perfectly depicts the sparseness of the prairie and the desolation of the immigrants’ existence in winter and comes alive when the glory and beauty of spring emerge.
Whether you see it as a love story, an indelible portrait of a wise, enduring female character, or a coming-of-age novel, My Ántonia is deserving of its respected place in American literature.
Ántonia, who, even as a grown woman somewhat downtrodden by circumstance and hard work, "had not lost the fire of life," lies at the center of almost every human condition that Cather's novel effortlessly untangles. She represents immigrant struggles with a foreign land and tongue, the restraints on women of the time (with which Cather was very much concerned), the more general desires for love, family, and companionship, and the great capacity for forbearance that marked the earliest settlers on the frontier.
As if all this humanity weren't enough, Cather paints her descriptions of the vastness of nature--the high, red grass, the road that "ran about like a wild thing," the endless wind on the plains--with strokes so vivid as to make us feel in our bones that we've just come in from a walk on that very terrain ourselves. As the story progresses, Jim goes off to the University in Lincoln to study Latin (later moving on to Harvard and eventually staying put on the East Coast in another neat encompassing of a stage in America's development) and learns Virgil's phrase "Optima dies ... prima fugit" that Cather uses as the novel's epigraph. "The best days are the first to flee"--this could be said equally of childhood and the earliest hours of this country in which the open land, much like My Ántonia, was nothing short of a rhapsody in prairie sky blue. --Melanie Rehak