Century of Books

My project to read the top 100 English-language books of the twentieth century.

Location: San Francisco, United States

I am an Australian writer and blogger living in San Francisco. Visit my professional site at caitlinfitzsimmons.com, or my travel and food blog at Roaming Tales or my personal blog at The Niltiac Files. I am also on Twitter as @niltiac. See the full list of books or visit me on BookCrossing.

02 November 2008

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

Published 1918, My Ántonia is considered one of the greats of American literature. It's about pioneer families in Nebraska in the 19th century and in particular tells of the immigrant experience. The tale is narrated by Jim Burden, who moves west from Virginia to live with his grandparents after his parents die, but the focal character is Ántonia who moves with her family to Nebraska from Bohemia as a young girl.

I was surprised by the similarities between the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and My Ántonia. It's true that both are set in the American Mid West in the 19th century but the Ingalls Wilder books are written for children so I was not expecting too many parallels. However, the landscape described in Cather's book, with the flat land and waving red grasses and dug-out houses, was very familiar to me from reading Little House in the Prairie as a child. The description of Black Hawk, the small town where Burden goes to school and Ántonia works as a hired girl, reminds me of the town where Laura and her family move for her high school years in the sequel Little Town on the Prairie. However, I don't remember the immigrant theme being particularly developed in the Ingalls Wilder books and this was central to My Ántonia.

It was really interesting to have the book peopled with Bohemians and Russians and Norwegians and to show the differences and commonalities with everyone else. For example, the importance the Bohemian family attaches to finding a Catholic priest to say masses for their father's soul, rather than buying a new coat for the youngest girl to wear in winter. Or how the oldest children don't get the chance to go to school because they have to work and help support the family, but the younger ones do. We see all of this through the narrator's eyes and he is a great champion for the immigrants - passionate about how full of life and vigour the immigrant girls were compared with everyone else.

The structure of the novel is quite interesting - the story is told in episodes from various stages of the narrator's life. Although it's more or less chronological, in some ways it feels more like a portrait than a novel. I mean that in a good way - I found it very easy to read with wonderful language but the lasting impression at the end is a snapshot of particular people at a particular place over a number of years in a particular period in time rather than one character's story.

41 down, 59 to go.