Willa Cather – My Antonia

A few thoughts from 2009…

Some years ago, there was a gangly young woman living in Kansas City, careening towards marriage to a sophisticated young man. Only, the young woman was really in love with reading, with the vast prairie, with the lowly redwing blackbird and scrub flowers.On a warm weekend in June, the man gathered his bachelor brethren for a large party at a local residence inn. Here they would drink, cavort with some topless women, and break each other’s ribs (!) in making merry for the man to marry.

The woman (thinking it possible she had not yet truly met her match) fled to Willa Cather’s home town, Red Cloud, Nebraska, for a bachelorette weekend of her own. She basked in the dry prairie grass, dusty gravel, and a greater sense of not knowing exactly where she was going or if she would make it there. She was struggling to pioneer her own life, coming to the middle of nowhere a bit as the Europeans who subdued the Midwest came, knowing only that, for some, striking out for the unknown is bred in the bone.

Of course this is not the story, and yet it is. My Ántonia is a novel of remembrance and great spirit, the recollection of a man who loves a woman he can possess only in the memory of their shared childhood. It’s a story of settlers and hardship, leaving and homesickness, sprinkled with glory, written in a spare, youthful tone. It is all about reaching out for the cherished unknown. This much I can tell you. But I’m unable to go further as I’ve absorbed this work so that it runs in my pulse, and to display it further would feel akin to opening a vein.

My Ántonia is more lovely, sweeter, and wilder than any novel I’ve read. It’s the story I think about on those occasions when I hop an outbound plane, knowing that I’m never more American than when setting out, leaving the familiar for adventures and points which can only be reckoned on some internal compass.

Self indulgent thoughts? Yeah, baby.

I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. 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.

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