Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bow to your partner

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: 66 - 136

The Shimerdas manage to get back on their feet with the help of another Czech immigrant and the charity of Jimmy's grandparents, and soon they have a log house, a cow, some hens, and a corn crop that summer. Ambrosch, the eldest son, is in charge of the farm, and is both a bully and a slave driver. Antonia works difficult jobs that are, in the view of the time, unsuited to a woman, though she claims to enjoy them. The Shimerdas treat the Burdens (Jimmy's family) rather abominably, taking advantage of their loans of money and equipment shamelessly, and, on top of that, accusing them of cheating and greed. It's astonishing to me that the Burdens maintain their patience, but they do.

Eventually, the Burdens give their farm into the keeping of caretakers and move to town, both because they are aging and so that Jimmy can attend school. Several months later, Antonia gets a job working as a hired girl for the Harlings, a generous and kind family in town. She and Jimmy become friends again. We watch for several years as they both grow up and start to experience the beginnings of adulthood. They attend dances and flirt and generally enjoy themselves. Jimmy's allowed to get away with this, being a boy, whereas, in the end, Mr. Harling forbids Antonia from attending dances while she lives under his roof. (I imagine Margaret Schlegel might have something to say about that.) Antonia refuses to abide by this rule, and leaves the Harlings to go to work for the Cutters, a couple with a terrible reputation for cruelty and low-mindedness.

As I said yesterday but didn't explain, it's extremely evocative. Somehow, the simplicity of Cather's prose seems to capture the moments of the lives she describes very well. The seasons and the landscape themselves seem part of the narrative, characters that interact with the living and change their patterns and experiences.

There are only a couple of things with which I find fault. First, and most superficial, Cather fails to describe the food in any great detail. She's always discussing the food that the Burdens and Antonia make, and yet, she doesn't make the experience of eating evocative. I like good food in a book, and I think it's a powerful tool for communicating shared experience. Cather could take advantage of that, and doesn't. Second, there's an odd thread of racism that runs through the book, especially when the Shimerdas are treating the Burdens so poorly. The Austrian hired man, Otto, has spoken ills of the Czechs, and the Shimerdas' behavior only confirms his slurs about them. There's never any resolution of the problem; Jimmy decides that Otto's right about the Czechs being lazy and uncouth, and that's all. I don't know that the point is, other than the confirmation of stereotype, but the fact that Jimmy still likes Antonia seems like a contradiction and a failure of resolution. You might argue that it's just that he got over it, and that's possible, but I think the point bears more examination than it's given.

I'm all whininess here, but I'm actually quite enjoying it. It does make one want to go to an old-fashioned dance, though. I long for the days when everyone knew a certain set of dances and one could count on night of live music and dancing in a traditional style for a good time.

Also, I must say that I agree with Fish. I don't believe that things are going to go well for Antonia, and I'm sad for it. She is, as Fish mentioned, something of a wild spirit, and not always likable, but, in the end, she does what makes her happy. I'm afraid that she'll be trapped by that rash servitude to her own happiness into a world that is nothing but misery. How? I don't know. But it seems to be a looming eventuality.

1 comment:

  1. I think I've just caught up with you and I was thinking how the town portion is hardly more than so much gossip. What you might hear if trapped with one of the town women for an afternoon.

    I don't know what to make of the racism either. My great-grandfather was casually racist (he would have been a young man when this was written), but it seems lazy to chalk it up to the-way-things-were-back-then. For all that I mentioned Jimmy's wise hindsight, we don't see much of it going forward.



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