Maybe what I love about Willa Cather is all the kinds of love and belonging she writes. Her unhappy marriages and her comfortable ones; her volatile love and her unconsummated longing; and her lone, happy people, are all so different, but so how I see the world. I think the way she writes them is wise. Unreliable narrators are delightful to read because, in the sense that the author has shown me their unreliability, she has also shown me their uniqueness and humanity. I think Jim Burden, the narrator of My Antonia
is a beautiful example of this and that most of the passion and mystery in this story comes from Jim’s failings as a human, within the story, and even as a character, from a critical perspective. I will explain.
Cather presents the story My Antonia
as a story within a story. The narrative introducing the book comes from a friend of Jim’s, who tells us that Jim has always had a romantic disposition, but that, as of the writing of the book, Jim is in a presumably loveless marriage with an awful woman who is “temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm.” Jim’s mind is consumed with memories of a Bohemian girl Jim and the author of the introduction both knew, and she represents to them both the country and the people of their childhoods. Throughout the book, Antonia Shimerda and her warmth belong to the land and the people who love her, and when someone calls her “my
Antonia” it means something about that belonging.
It is impossible to truly identify with Antonia because Cather writes her in this unreliable way, and so, even though she is a painfully real character, she is told with lovely mistakes – the mistakes we make in talking about people we love who we don’t understand, who are not like us. Anyway, I don’t remember making this connection the last time I read this book, but for most of my life, people have referred to me as “my Meredith.” I think maybe it is the alliteration that brings it on, but it has always baffled me. For a long time, I found it horrifying. The phrase had some kind of unsettling expectation to it. Now, though, I feel differently. I feel like it is lovely to belong to the people I care about, and the last time someone said it, it was just comfortable and true. I’m not saying that this makes me similar to Antonia Shimerda, but it made me think about how warm and human it is to belong to people like Antonia did.
So, I’m telling you about how this book is written by a woman, but from the perspective of a boy and then a man. Writing across genders is suspicious to me, and so that unreliability piles on to the already suspect character of Jim. And, I don’t think Cather tells him fairly or realistically as a male character, or that this story is told as a man would tell it. It is told in the way a woman would tell about a man’s love, and I like that. It has the insight of a woman into the motivations of another woman, but it has the gentleness of how a woman sees the emotions of men.
Cather always writes domestic stories, but there is also something epic about the tragedies, betrayals, and glory her characters encounter. I don’t think there is one in O Pioneers, but in most of her books she includes some story within the story (in this case also within the larger story) of a far-off land, and those stories are my favorite part of the adventure of reading Willa Cather. The story of the Russian wolves in My Antonia
is my favorite.
I am a very impressionable young thing, and so when someone explains to me why they love something, it often sticks and colors my interpretation of that thing in the future. I am staunchly against the prairies, and the pioneers are usually dullsville. In real life, when I am away from mountains for too long I freak out, and I have an aversion to reading about how to live in a dug out. But Cather’s wonderful descriptions of Nebraska change the whole idea for me. I know it’s just descriptions, but they are so vivid and beautiful. I love the mountains, and I maintain that they are more beautiful than the prairies, but I could never describe the essence of the places I love like Cather does her places. And her places are ick, so that makes her even more wonderful as a writer.
Anyway, I love this book. I listened to it on audio this time, and the audio is really lovely. It is difficult to say whether this is my favorite Cather or O Pioneers is or The Professor’s House is. They are all wonderful. This one has a quality I like of being driven by character, not plot, but that is not always a draw. The people here are wonderful, timeless, and real. The things they say are things people should say, and they belong to each other the way people should. It is often brutal, in the way art should be brutal, with real feeling; but, it is not cruel. It tells how we should see each other and how we should be, but also how we do see each other and how we are. It is a sort of magical world that is also real life, but I think that is how we talk about people we love – suspiciously comfortable; unreliable, but belonging.