I read My Antonia many, many years ago. I wasn't impressed. The very likeable hero and heroine didn't get together, for reasons my adolescent heart just couldn't fathom. Not much else mattered...at least as far as I remember my long-ago reaction some 35-40 years later.
Fast forward to several weeks ago. Wichita was participating in The Big Read, and Willa Cather's My Antonia had been selected as the book for all of us to explore. Having a few more experiences under my belt, I decided to give it another try. Not only were there several interesting sounding public discussions being offered, but Willa Cather has a reputation as the first major prairie author, and I've been somewhat obsessively reading prairie writers as I reacclimate to life in Kansas.
I loved the book. I understand now why Jim and Antonia would never have been happy together - they had different dreams and different needs for their lives. Furthermore, although Jim's life was much more successful in terms of typically lauded actions (he became a top lawyer for a national firm in New York City, married to a socially prominent and rich woman), I suspect it is Antonia's life that was ultimately richer and more satisfying. She may have remained in Nebraska, married a farmer, had a physically hard life and become "nothing but" a farmer's wife and mother to a passel of kids, but her happiness and pride shines in her eyes and in the eyes of her family when Jim finally visits her after 20 years away. In a loveless marriage with no children, his life suddenly seems rather empty...at least to me.
However, it is Cather's descriptions of the prairie as it is being settled that really sunk into my imagination. Cather herself moved from Virginia to Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was 10 and she lived there for about 12 years before heading back east. She arrived in 1883 and left in 1895 after graduating from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, essentially spending her entire adolescence in this half wild landscape. I feel like she offers me a rare moment of time travel back to see what the prairie looked like before so much of it disappeared between the hedgerows and under the plow....
"...this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it."
"Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.... The little trees were insignificant against the grass. It seemed as if the grass were about to run over them, and over the plum-patch behind the sod chicken-house."
"As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running."
"I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass."
"The road ran about like a wild thing, avoiding the deep draws, crossing them where they were wide and shallow. And all along it, wherever it looped or ran, the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms. They made a gold ribbon across the prairie."
"Some of the cottonwoods had already turned, and the yellow leaves and shining white bark made them look like the gold and silver trees in fairy tales."
"All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death - heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day."
Towards the end of the novel, Cather speaks through Jim as he returns to Nebraska after many years away...
"I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces."
My psyche resonates to that statement. I think the lands we come to know well in our lives will always be a part of us in a deep and timeless way. The prairie obviously touched Cather's soul. Her gift was (and is) to share that experience with the rest of us.