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Willa Cather certainly counts as classic, and lo these many years since I’ve read anything of hers. Death Comes to the Archbishop was the last one, and so long ago I barely recall it except as a fine and spare novel set in the southwest. My Antonia qualifies as a fine and spare novel, except it’s set in Nebraska. From the foreward it is fairly autobiographical, the narrator having migrated from Virginia as a child to a this bare and comparatively barren land.

The narrator and Antonia (pronounced aan-ton–EE-ah, per its Bohemian origins) come of age together in the same area but in very different circumstances. Jim Burden lives with caring and stable grandparents in a wood farm house. Antonia lives with her neurotic mother,


surly brother (older) and infant sister in a sod house. Antonia’s family barely speaks English, having immigrated from what we today is known as the Czech Republic. [Our recent trip to the area added some interest. Bohemia was before a rather abstract place, Wenceslaus an imaginary king in a Christmas Carol. Come to find out they are, respectively, real places, real people, with real histories.]

Despite their differences, the two form a strong friendship that outlasts Burden’s exodus to Harvard Law and a life in NYC that parallels Antonia’s disastrous romance and subsequent marriage to a prosperous farmer and their multiple children.

It seems to me that this is the story. The strength of childhood roots that define the inner core of one’s being beyond the trappings of worldly success or failure. It’s a simple story, told simply, and full of psychological complexities that its surface outlines belie. Like a Wyeth painting, in a way.

Much has been made of the implicit homosexuality in the book, but as one who’s often intrigued by such, I don’t see it. True, the book has an odd structure. The opening narrator is from the same town as Burden. Antonia is a mutual acquaintance. Burden challenges him to a mutual recording of their memories of her. Burden delivers his, the original narrator doesn’t, but presents Burden’s to the audience, and that becomes the novel. All of Burden’s bonds are formed with women–Antonia, who is a bit older–and her friends and associates. Burden has a wife, but she is mentioned by the opening narrator only as someone he doesn’t like because she is rather phony, and he doesn’t understand why they are married. This, the person who wrote the introduction presents as evidence that Cather was using her male narrators as masks to hide her affection for the other women. As well accept Antonia’s friend Anna’s explanation that she’s had enough of family life taking care of squawling babies and prefers to live alone. I can’t explain the double-dip narrator except to say that it does add a level of interest to the whole story, shows that it’s not just a little story that begins and ends with a midwest immigrant. But I can say that sometimes a frog is just a frog.

Very glad I returned to this classic American author and figure in American letters, for her distinguished career as an editor and publisher in an era when women were not all that welcome is a testimony to her talent and her determination.

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