I read My Antonia slowly, like my bookshelf was experiencing a famine and I had to ration female perspective. Luckily for me and all of you, there’s been a lot of that going on since the dawn of humanity, and I am very excited to illuminate some of it by way of this blog.
But not everyone can do what Willa Cather can.
What overwhelmed me, besides the poetic beauty and wit of Cather’s writing style, was how strong women are seen as beautiful, female friendships are reliable and sustained, and women take control of and improve their circumstances. To be overwhelmed by any of this is nonsense. But I was. We just don’t see this positivity often in mainstream media. Especially not unwaveringly throughout the entire work. Most books on this list can’t even claim that.
If it seems like I am describing a utopia, I am not. This was published in 1918 when The Fallen Woman (the female character whose life is destroyed by the loss of her chastity) was finally losing popularity and being unseated by the New Woman. The emergence of The New Woman was a win but the world around her was still garbage. Things were better in that they were slightly less bad: In My Antonia the girls who are seen as Dumb Whores by the locals are neither dumb nor judged by Cather for their sexuality. If anything, we judge the locals through their eyes. This is what makes the book so relevant. I judge idiots all the time.
One such pair of scrutinizing eyes belongs to Antonia Shimerda. She emigrates from Bohemia to America with her family as a child and befriends the slightly younger Jim Burden who narrates the story and who is based on Cather. Their friendship drives the novel. After Jim is charged with helping her learn English, he quickly grows to love and deeply admire Antonia. And for good reason. She’s just the best.
When tragedy strikes the Shimerdas, though sharp-witted Antonia may wish her family had the financial position to keep her in school like Jim, she still excels at what she decides to do: work the fields alongside her brother.
But Antonia is not only emotionally strong. She threshes, shovels, drives grain-wagons. She becomes physically strong at a time when this was discouraged in women. “I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man. I like to be like a man,” she tells Jim. Then she asks him to feel her bicep and challenges him to a push-up contest.
Strong women are seen as beautiful, female friendships are reliable and sustained, and women take control of and improve their circumstances.
Here is Jim’s ode to the girl he is unrequitedly in love with: “She kept her sleeves rolled up all day, and her arms and throat were burned as brown as a sailor’s. Her neck came up strongly out of her shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf. One sees that draught-horse neck among the peasant women in all old countries.” Yet everyone agrees that Antonia is beautiful, and with her draught-horse neck she is no less appealing to Jim.
Antonia becomes one of a set of very attractive but unmarriageable immigrant daughters who came from the country to work as hired girls in the nearest town, Black Hawk. Driven by the goal to aid their families and held back by poverty and lack of education, these girls are stereotyped to fuel town gossip and taken advantage of sexually. Jim hates it. “If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English.”
The book addresses blatant bigotry and microaggressions towards immigrants. Like when Antonia’s mother thanks Jim’s grandmother with precious dried mushrooms from the Old Country, and his grandmother throws them in the fire out of fear and ignorance. At times, Cather uses the reactions of immigrant characters like Antonia to criticize Jim’s perspective. We’re stuck with his first person narration, but we’re not asked to think everything he does.
Of course I certainly don’t need to be asked to agree with him about Lena.
Oh Lena. Lena Lingard. Thank you Willa Cather for creating such characters as Lena who ignores the town’s categorization of her as the local slut, starts her own business as a successful dressmaker, refuses to let schoolboy Jim pay for her financially superior self on dates, buys a new house for her mother with the money she makes, and says amazing thing after amazing thing like “I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.” She fulfills this wish, though stays close with one of her friends from Black Hawk until they’re old maids living near each other in San Francisco and may or may not be partners. (You tell me, readers. You tell me.) Cather herself cross-dressed as a youth and lived with her companion Edith Lewis for nearly 40 years.
Anyway, I made a game of playing “What awesome thing will Lena Lingard say next?” it’s a game everyone wins. If I had made this review a series of Lena Lingard quotes, it would win a Pulitzer.
Everything comes to a head when Antonia is involved in some damning events and Jim’s grandmother starts up about how isn’t it funny that the fate we all expected to befall that whore Lena actually befell good girl Antonia, but Antonia still came out on top anyway and none of my categorizations or the opinions of this stupid 1800s town matter?
If you listen closely you can hear all of the Hired Girls in My Antonia softly laughing to each other about the fallen woman archetype.