Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Antonia - a book within a book - Why?

I just finished Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia. It's another classic that I never read in high school, but wished I had. Although, reading it now, after years of developing my own writing, gives me a perspective that helped me appreciate it in ways I probably could not have when I was young. The novel is about growing up in a small Nebraska town. Some of it is set on a farm outside the town and some in Black Hawk. The comparison between farm living and town living is one of the most fascinating aspects of this book.

The book takes place from the point of view of Jim Burton, so we learn more about him than anyone else. But two immigrant women are described in depth. These are Antonia Shimerda and Lena Lingard. Antonia is a hard working daughter of a poor Bohemian family. She spends her first year in America living in a dugout home that is nothing more than a cave. Lena is a Scandinavian woman who grows up on a farm that is fairly successful. She spends much of her time tending to her father's cattle. She is a flirtatious young girl, but grows into a stable young woman who chooses to remain single throughout her life. Antonia takes a very different path as she grows up. The book, however, is more about homesteading in Nebraska the late nineteenth century than it is about any of these three people. The detail and language used to describe the land is wonderful.

After reading the book I thought a great deal about the introduction. It is the only part of the novel that is not from Jim's point of view. Instead, it is from the point of view of a woman who grew up with him in Nebraska. Her name is not revealed. I'm sure it was supposed to imply that she was Willa Cather rather than one of her characters, but she could also have been someone from the book such as Nina Harling, the youngest daughter of a town family Antonia worked for after she left her own family's farm.

The intro makes the book into a novel within a novel, although it does it in an odd fashion because the story never gets back to the woman's point of view. I don't see how that intro advances the story at all. I think it might have to do with the time when the novel was written. Perhaps there was a fear that a woman writing a book exclusively from a man's point of view would be controversial. That's just a thought, of course. There are other signs of the time in Cather's writing, especially in the description of an African-American and in the comparison of the eyes of a Lapp woman with the "squinty" eyes of a Chinese person. Those were both very small parts of the book, but from a twenty-first century perspective it made me uncomfortable.

The other odd thing the intro does is tell us about Jim Burton's wife. She isn't in the rest of the book, yet she is described in depth in the intro. I had trouble understanding why Cather did that. It did increase my disappointment that Jim never made a life with either Antonia or Lena, but other than that it had little purpose.

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