Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Antonia, Willa Cather

My Antonia was a book club pick.  (We'd read One of Ours by Cather a couple years ago and liked it.)  I'm betting that my dad never read this; otherwise it definitely would have made his reading list.

My Antonia tells the story of immigrants who settled and farmed the Plains. It is narrated by Jim Burden and begins when Jim moves to his grandparents' Nebraska farm when his parents die.  Jim meets and befriends Antonia Shimerda whose family, Bohemian immigrants, lives on a farm nearby.  I love the details of farm life.  My own great great grandparents were immigrant farmers on the Minnesota and North Dakota Plains, so I imagine that this describes their lives to some degree.

In the middle section of the novel, Jim and his grandparents move to Black Hawk, a nearby city, while teen-aged Antonia and other teen immigrant girls are hired by city families to help as housekeepers and nannies to earn money to help pay off family debt and send younger siblings to school.  Cather has a romantic view of the immigrant girls and contrasts them with the city girls. (I'll quote a big section behind the cut, for your sampling pleasure. Copyright has expired and the whole book is available free online.)

My Antonia follows Jim and Antonia into their middle-aged years. Antonia remains an object of Jim's great admiration throughout. Because he narrates, we only see her as Jim sees her; we never get inside her head. She's an iconic character in American lit. She's spirited, hard-working, resilient and good-natured and Cather offers her as a worthy tribute to immigrants who settled the Plains.

THERE WAS A CURIOUS social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt
the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town
to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle
out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family
to go to school.

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little
schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they
made such sacrifices and who have had `advantages,' never seem to me, when
I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls,
who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from
poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia,
been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an
old country to a new.

I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black
Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something
unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a
race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigour which, when they
got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive
carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black
Hawk women.

That was before the day of high-school athletics. Girls who had to walk
more than half a mile to school were pitied. There was not a tennis-court
in the town; physical exercise was thought rather inelegant for the
daughters of well-to-do families. Some of the high-school girls were jolly
and pretty, but they stayed indoors in winter because of the cold, and in
summer because of the heat. When one danced with them, their bodies never
moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing--not
to be disturbed. I remember those girls merely as faces in the schoolroom,
gay and rosy, or listless and dull, cut off below the shoulders, like
cherubs, by the ink-smeared tops of the high desks that were surely put
there to make us round-shouldered and hollow-chested.

The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, unenquiring belief
that they were `refined,' and that the country girls, who `worked out,'
were not. The American farmers in our county were quite as hard-pressed as
their neighbours from other countries. All alike had come to Nebraska with
little capital and no knowledge of the soil they must subdue. All had
borrowed money on their land. But no matter in what straits the
Pennsylvanian or Virginian found himself, he would not let his daughters go
out into service. Unless his girls could teach a country school, they sat
at home in poverty.

The Bohemian and Scandinavian girls could not get positions as teachers,
because they had had no opportunity to learn the language. Determined to
help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no
alternative but to go into service. Some of them, after they came to town,
remained as serious and as discreet in behaviour as they had been when they
ploughed and herded on their father's farm. Others, like the three
Bohemian Marys, tried to make up for the years of youth they had lost. But
every one of them did what she had set out to do, and sent home those
hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for
ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten.

One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our
county were the first to become prosperous. After the fathers were out of
debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbours--usually of like
nationality-- and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are
to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children
are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.

I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid.
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.
There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation,
much less the personal distinction, of Antonia's father. Yet people saw no
difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all
`hired girls.'

I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into
their own, and I have. To-day the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant
can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to
the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian
girls are now the mistresses.

The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living
in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and
hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow
would look up from his ledger, or out through the grating of his father's
bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with
her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short
skirt and striped stockings.

The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their
beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious
mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons.
The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk

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