My Antonia by Willa Cather

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I loved My Antonia by Willa Cather when I read it in high school, and when I went to pick it up, I had some dim memories of characters and setting. I recalled that it was about rural Nebraska. It was about a boy and a girl. They lived on farms and played together. It was very cold in the winter. Life was tragic (That Event), and yet Antonia rises above it.

What surprised me was that all of those beautiful country scenes I remembered from the book happened in the first 80 pages! After that, Jim Burden moves to town. I remembered the details as I reread it, and it was kind of a fun experience to reread it for the first time and gain an open mind as my memory of events unfolded just before they would happen.

My Antonia captures a man’s memories of an immigrant girl, Antonia, who moved to Nebraska at the same time he did. Jim Burden and Antonia grew up near each other in the fields. Jim moves to town (Black Hawk), and she eventually follows to be household help for near neighbors. While his life follows different paths than hers, he remembers her and looks her up when he returns to Black Hawk.

My general memories were still correct. Antonia was a girl with positive spunk, even when things got really hard. She had some bad luck, where people took advantage of her. I loved her power to overcome.  Jim Burden didn’t always live next to her, but it was also a touching record of how one person influences our memories: Antonia made an impact on his life, even after all those years.

That is why I love this book. Some people can’t get through it: they find the writing dull and the characters and subtle story uninteresting. But I love the way that Jim’s memories of Antonia have stayed with him. I like to think that I’ve impacted lives for the better, much as Antonia impacted Jim’s life.

Did you enjoy My Antonia?

Reviewed on December 17, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I read My Ántonia for the first time earlier this year and I loved it! I loved the descriptions and I loved the characters. It was one of the best books I read this year.

  • I loved My Antonia. Bet you would really like O Pioneers!, too, if you haven’t already read it. Death Comes for the Archbishop is waiting on my shelf.

  • I’ll be the voice of disagreement – I did not like this book. 🙂

    I remember not liking it in high school, which is saying something b/c I usually loved the assigned reading (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, etc – though NOT Heart of Darkness or Catcher in the Rye …).

    Earlier this year I decided to revisit My Antonia via the audio version. I made it through about 2 cds before calling it quits. For me, there isn’t enough going on in the story and I was completely bored. Sorry!

    I’m glad there are people who enjoy this though – I’ve always questioned why it was a classic, but maybe it’s because of the reasons you mention in your review.

  • I was actually pretty meh about this one. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t my favorite, either. I later read Death Comes For the Archbishop, which I thought was much better.

  • I haven’t read any Willa Cather, but she popped up on my radar this year and I certainly would like to read something by her in the near future.

    I’m not sure if this is a book I will love – I think I can deal quite well with character based novels if the writing is really good, but I think it also depends what mood I’m in. I found your review really helpful because it gave me a good sense of what to expect when I approach the novel!

    I wonder if you would like it so much if you had read it for the first time this year? Sometimes I wonder about the extent to which our early readings color our later perceptions of a book. I don’t really re-read that often, and haven’t re-read very many books from my childhood/early teen years, so I’m certainly interested to find out how some of them stack up!

  • I haven’t read any Cather. I tried reading My Antonia before but always stopped on the first page or two, perhaps not having caught my interest. But one day I plan to. Must find out why it’s stayed a classic.

  • I loved My Antonia! I never read it until I had moved from California to Minnesota. We drove through NE to get here and so when I read the book I could really imagine what it was like. I have a distinct memory of a description of red canna lilies blooming against a white house.

  • My Antonia is one of my favorites. I read it and listened to an audio version and loved them both. I don’t even think I could pinpoint what I like about it, and I kind of like it when that happens.

  • It’s so interesting to read the different reactions to this book! Personally I’m of two minds about it – I love the quality of the writing, especially her landscape descriptions, to the extent that “My Antonia” has become synonymous with a certain heartland-ish beauty to me. And I love the quietness of the book. But I don’t really relate to Cather’s persistent fetishizing of the land – like, we should all return to the earth and bear a million children, and that any other lifestyle is not as “authentic” as that. Jim goes to school and becomes (my impression is) a fairly successful traveling salesman, but he’s depressed and unsatisfied, whereas Antonia, who is worn down with poverty, child-bearing, and toil, is glowing with satisfaction. Which is fine; within the context of this one novel that seems believable enough. But Cather repeats this theme in SO MANY of her books, and it’s not one I find very compelling, being myself a satisfied city person who sees authentic behavior around me.

    Anyway, great review! It’s always satisfying to find that a long-time favorite holds its own over time.

  • My Antonia has been on my TBR list for quite some time, but I scared off from picking it up because a friend expressed a clear disdain for the novel. I have a renewed appreciation for books that meander through life and are character based, so I’ll have to bump this book up in the list.

  • Zee, yeay!

    Stephanie, Archbishop is my book club read for next month. I meant to read it , but Antonia was next to it on the shelf so I got both:)

    JoAnn, I don’t recall a think about Pioneers but I think I read it…it’s on my list too!

    Heather J., I know you didn’t, and your “abandoned book” post prompted me to reread it! So thanks! I still enjoy it…

    Amanda, I’m going to read Archbishop next!

    Stefanie, I have driven through Nebraska many times, so I completely understand! I never like the scenery quite so much in person though…

    Sarah, it seems like a common one for high school. Glad they liked it!

    Aarti, “Quiet” is a good way to describe it!

    Shelley,. maybe I’ll try it in audio sometime!

    Emily, I completely see what you’re saying, but I hadn’t even seen it like that. Interesting to consider for another reread some day. Not sure it bothers me in this book.

    Claire, that’s how I was too, and it was fun to reread it and keep thinking “oh yeah!” as events happened!

    Kathy, maybe some day!

    Christina, it’s definitely somewhat of a meandering book. But as you can see, it’s one people either love or hate, it seems!

  • I first read this book as a book group selection when I lived in Nebraska. Though I didn’t live in the prairie, I really appreciated the beautiful writing. I like Aarti’s description of “quiet,” which I think is well put. I’ve also read O Pioneers which I liked a lot. Hopefully we’ll be able to do Circuit tour with Cather someday.

  • I liked My Antonia when I read it in college, although it’s funny, I remember it being all out in the country as well. When I saw your comment about that being only in the first part, I had an “oh yeah” moment. In my head it’s all about the countryside, maybe because like Emily points out Cather is so positive about country living and points out how miserable city life is. She does have a bit of a point, people in the city are usually much more stressed and high strung, although they are usually wealthier. Of course, working to earn that wealth is what stresses them out. I’m a city girl myself, so I don’t want to sound down on it, but there is something appealing about the idea of living off the land and escaping the hustle and bustle, although I don’t think I’d actually want to do that. The other comments reminded me that I just read some of her other books.

  • I love My Antonia. It was the first Cather book I read and it really lingered with me for a long time.

    Death Comes to the Archbishop was, to me, even better. I read that a couple of years after My Antonia and was dazzled.

  • Karen, we’ll have to go back to the same authors again sometime!

    Lindsey, I guess the setting is just so well developed! I like the images too but I wouldn’t want to live there!

    Rose City Reader, I’m so glad Archbishop was better for you too! I’m hoping to get through it this week or next but we’ll see. I’m looking forward to it!

  • my antonia led me to o pioneers – and then i caught the movie (o pioneers) with jessica lang – i loved both books and the movie (made for tv i think) and would look forward to re-visit when i get the chance….

  • I read this one back, I think it was, in the spring. I enjoyed it. I liked Cather’s writing style and the details about the way of life at that time. Nice review.

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