This anecdote (recounted in James Woodress's biography of Cather) sums up almost exactly the technique that makes her novel both unique and unusual. Instead of writing the story from her heroine's point of view, or from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, Cather instead creates a bystander, the likeable and somewhat innocent Jim Burden, who has written down a series of memories where his and Antonia's lives intersect; "My Antonia" is a biography through the mask of autobiography. While this is Jim's story as much as it is Antonia's (she is barely mentioned at all in Book III), we are ultimately studying a much-loved thing of beauty from "all sides"-from the distance separating it and the observer.
Although "My Antonia" relates a number of exciting, sentimental, horrifying, and even scandalous incidents (none of which will be divulged here), Cather very deliberately chose to write a character novel rather than an action story. Many of the book's pivotal "events" happen offstage; we learn what has happened only when Jim hears about Antonia or runs into her at a gathering or stops by her home. Such a detached approach is a departure from that used by many of the American naturalists (e.g., Dreiser, Lewis) writing during this period, yet her book is surely a model of realism. As Jim writes when he notes his reluctance to visit Antonia when they are both grown, "Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again
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