Wednesday, November 05, 2008
I saw a while back that Caitlin had My Antonia by Willa Cather listed under her "currently reading" section on her blog. I had never read it (really I hadn't heard of it), so I got it from the library. I had a few other things I was reading at the time, so I had to renew this book 3 times before I got through it.
For those who, like me, haven't read it, it was published in 1918 and it chronicles the lives of settlers on the Nebraska prairie. The narrator is Jim Burden, a boy sent to live with his farmer grandparents. His closest friend is Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant from Bohemia who lives in the next farm over with her family. The Shimerdas have it rough and live in a sodhouse like the one pictured above.
The book, overall was worthwhile, but like other great pieces of literature of the early century, was a bit dreary to get through. (We all remember the turtle chapter from The Grapes of Wrath.) It seemed to me that looking back and reminiscing was a large thematic element. As Jim gets older, he is always thinking about his early years. The Shimerdas are always talking about 'the old country.' Looking back is fine, but it seemed that no one was satisfied with the present. The only thing that came close was when Jim was going to the dances in Black Hawk, and having fun dancing with all the girls, until his grandmother felt he was giving the family a bad name, so he had to quit going.
When Jim does try to go back to his hometown after being away for so long, he doesn't look on the changes he finds there with any sort of satisfaction; just a sad longing for the way things used to be.
I agree with the sentiment that 'you can never go home again,' and while that's a sad truth, I can still find pleasure in the present, and even excitement about the future. Maybe that's what Antonia was trying to do when she was talking about how much she cared for her orchard. She speaks about how she cared for the trees and woke up in the middle of the night to go water them. What are young cherry trees if not a promise of a better future (one with cherries in it)? Maybe this pleasure in the present is what Jim was trying to do when he was taking his mental snapshot of all of Antonia's children coming out of the fruit cellar.
At any rate, I'm glad that I was born where and when I was if only that I didn't have to wrangle cattle all day then hunker down in the back room that night and give birth. What a life, eh?