Thursday, June 17, 2010

Won't you come in?

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: Guest post - chapters 1-19

Hey! I must be a real blogger now, because I have a guest post! Which, frankly, is saving my ass a little right now, since I did a terrible job yesterday.

Guest Post from Fish

It's hard not to think of My Antonia as inhabiting the same literary country as the latter three-quarters of Wilder's Little House books, with frontier farming, cultural clashes, and childhood narration. The story is easygoing and turns the images and ideas over like a plough, digging deeply enough to keep your attention but not so deep as to drag the whole story under.

I wondered, while reading, what makes a person want to write such a story. The framing narration seems to be from Cather's point of view, but the story itself is told by a male friend who knew Antonia (of the title) longer and better. It is such a gentle, refreshing thing to imagine an author setting down to write a story about the settling of the plains states, immigrants and religion, the nature of neighbors. Such things rarely make great literature, so I am expecting more than what is, so far, sort of an uncomplicated story.

The narrator, Jimmy, is pretty interesting, and recounts the story with the benefit of wisdom and hindsight. He describes a situation where Antonia, being older, is bossy and dismissive of him, until he kills a rattlesnake with a spade. It had been a fat, old thing living a life of reptile ease in a prairie dog town, and I was so charmed by Jimmy's frank admission that, though he thought of it as a grand accomplishment at the time, it was not much of a dragon and he not much of a dragonslayer.

Antonia herself is problematic. Smart and outgoing, but wild and proud, she rubs Jimmy the wrong way with her coarseness, and her good Lutheran neighbors with the largely incommunicable social needs of her family (of whom only she speaks English with any fluency). Jimmy's grandmother seems to be genuinely fond of her, but Cather has set up this inscrutable wisdom thing for both of Jimmy's grandparents (which I frankly find annoying but I'll get over it. Grandfather as a stand-in for God, all beard, wisdom and rare, pithy locutions? I must say, I've seen it before). Basically nobody but Jimmy and his grandparents has any fondness for the Shimerdas, and they don't really help their own reputations. Antonia's mother and brother are proud as well, and poverty has introduced to them a meanness of spirit that one charitably hopes isn't their natural state.

I will say that I'm watching Antonia with a sort of checked dread. She is so built up in the framing narration that surely something terrible and transformative is coming. After the death of her father, whose general benevolence granted her much personal leeway, and the subsequent eminence of her furtive, manipulative relatives, I am assuming it will come from that quarter, but who can say? I've read frontier narratives and I know a pretty good set of what can really go wrong. A string of dead livestock, a murder, or even a broken limb could do the job just as easily.

The first 19 chapters close with she and Jimmy laying on the chicken house and watching an electrical storm roll in. I suppose that's what it's all about. I fear for her.

A post-script: My bloodline passed through Bohemia, and I too am smart, proud and wild, and have tried to be as strong as the men around me, and so see much of myself in Antonia. Much of my fear for her is fear also for my hypothetical frontier self. I predict her spirit will be much abused in the coming chapters, and I know I will take it as a personal hurt.

1 comment:

  1. Great to read your guest-post Fish. I've read the book several times over the years and am really looking forward to reading what you and Claire have to say about it. Love, love, love Willa Cather and Antonia herself.



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