Heather Gudenkauf graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education. She is the bestselling author of The Weight of Silence, nominated by The Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. She lives in Dubuque, Iowa, with her husband and three children. Here Heather discusses Willa Cather's My Ántonia.
Heather Gudenkauf on My Ántonia by Willa Cather
The summer I turned eighteen, my parents and I moved from our beloved home town in Iowa, where I grew up, to the state of Nebraska. Not knowing anyone in my new town, I turned to what I've always turned to during difficult times - books. While unpacking the numerous boxes of books my parents have accumulated over the years I came across a book that I'd seen on their shelves but never read. The cover was a painting of a beautiful, young pioneer woman holding a bouquet of flowers, standing amid the wild prairie. The title, written in bold blue script was My Ántonia.
As a child I grew up reading the mild, thoroughly satisfying adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie life and as a young adult I hadn't found a book that chronicled the hardships and perseverance of the American pioneer that touched me in quite the same way. I knew as I began to read that My Ántonia was going to forever have a very special place in my heart. Like Ántonia Shimerda's Bohemian family who travelled from Czechoslovakia to the Midwest, my own Bohemian great, great grandparents did the same. My great, great grandmother's name was Ántonia and my maiden name was Schmida. Growing up I would spend endless hours looking at the few photos of my ancestors, imagining what life among the wild prairie could have been like for them. After reading the first few pages of My Ántonia I felt like I might actually learn the answer to this question.
My Ántonia is the story of Jim Burden, a young boy who travels to the Nebraska prairie to live with his grandparents after the deaths of his mother and father. Along the way Jim meets the Shimerda family, immigrants from Czechoslovakia who are also beginning a new life on the prairie. Despite the language barrier Jim is immediately taken with Ántonia's indomitable spirit and beauty, and a lifelong friendship is formed. Ántonia and Jim explore the wild prairie together, battle rattle snakes, go sleigh-riding, visit their unusual neighbours, and are rarely apart during their early years on the Nebraska grasslands.
Together Ántonia and Jim also face terrible losses that bind them together. Jim, an orphan when he comes to the prairie, can empathize with Ántonia when her father, after being cheated by an unscrupulous countryman and unable to cope in the strange, harsh, unforgiving new land, commits suicide. In spite of Ántonia and Jim's friendship, their many differences also set them apart. Jim's grandfather and grandmother love him dearly as do the farmhands, and he lives in a cozy home with plenty of food and warmth. In contrast, after Ántonia's beloved father dies, she is left to live in a small, cold cave with few provisions and her hard, bitter mother and three siblings. Ántonia accepts these hardships with determination, and somehow maintains her joyful spirit and optimism. Though time and circumstances sweep Jim and Ántonia away from one another for years, later in life they reconnect and are able to happily remember the innocence and pleasure of their childhood friendship.
Willa Cather had such a wonderful way of describing the world around her and captured, through words, all the beauty of the American Midwest. Her haunting images never cease to move me. For example:
... so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it.
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.
And finally, the lines from My Ántonia that resonate most deeply with me:
Perhaps the glide of long railway travel was still with me, for more than anything else I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping...
As a reader, every year, even after 22 years, I continue to learn something new from My Ántonia, and as a writer I am continually striving to capture the world around me in Cather's poignant manner.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]