My Ántonia
Willa Cather

Jeff Cummings, Reader
(Blackstone Audio)
Willa Cather is one of those authors we have been meaning to read for the last thirty or forty years now, right up there with John Ruskin, Anthony Powell, Victor Hugo and Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázque. Praise be that Blackstone finally came out with the audio version of My Ántonia else we might never have gotten around to it.

Indeed, as we forged ahead we thought it to be somewhat like you and me and old faithful Dobbin plowing a furrow there in the hard Nebraska topsoil. Which is to say that if it was up to us and a print copy of Cather's book, it's possible we would never have gotten past Chapter Four. The reading here by Jeff Cummings was good enough to keep us going ... but barely.

Ántonia arrives on the farm the same summer that Jim Burden --- the narrator --- does. He's just become an orphan, has been sent out from Virginia to live with his grandparents. Ántonia's father, a Czech by the name of Shimerdas, kills himself right off the bat, so it's just her and her crusty older brother and befuddled Mum. It's bad times there on the north forty.

Ántonia learns to speak English, says "ain't" a lot, and ultimately goes off to marry an scoundrel in Denver --- Irish, of course --- who leaves her at the altar, with child. Meanwhile Jim Burden never reveals his passion for her, kills a large rattlesnake and takes off for college and becomes a prosperous lawyer. When he returns to visit his old flame twenty-five years later,

    Ántonia came in and stood before me; a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled. It was a shock, of course. It always is, to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as much and as hard as this woman had. We stood looking at each other.

"She was there, in the full vigor of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well."

§     §     §

My Ántonia is a ramble though the tough Middle West of a hundred-and-thirty years ago, with a few strange diversions. For instance, the two Russians who live on the next farm over in their previous lives were coming home from a wedding party in a sleigh and the ones behind them were attacked by wolves and all the other guests were eaten (only in Russia) and they got blamed and had to leave the steppes behind and come to America.

And although the young Jim Burden loved young Ántonia, in his fashion, she finally marries the slightly crippled Cuzak who presents her with a mountain of babies. Burden goes to Harvard and gets rich; Ántonia gets in the family way. After delivering up a slew of children, he sees her as "battered." Yet there is a special force, perhaps a divine force, that makes her My Ántonia.

"Tony has nice children --- ten or eleven of them by this time, I guess, who can count them all?" says one of her neighbors. They are hearty children, smart, appealing, endlessly tumbling over each other out of the cave where the family first lived, there on the plains.

This one of those "classics" that, when you are done with it, you are wondering why it is considered classic? Who picks these things, anyway? It's like being an English major at Podunk U., wrestling with The Scarlet Letter or the complete works of John Greenleaf Whittier. My Ántonia rambles all over the place, foreigners in drudgery in the dust and the sweat, the winter of our despair there somewhere near god-forsaken Lincoln, Nebraska.

Perhaps it is the reality that the critics like: people driven nuts in the midst of the American dream, in 1890, getting robbed, foreigners starving to death in the breadbasket of the world, killing themselves, women working like indentured slaves, delivering endless babies and getting wrinkled and haggard ... but still with that old Mid-West can-do bravado.

Burden concludes his final meeting with a gush of feeling ... so far, and yet, so near:

    The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

Feelings that you could touch ... The road of Destiny ... The incommunicable past!

--- Lolita Lark
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