My Ántonia, published in 1918, is arguably the most famous work of American novelist Willa Cather. The novel takes the form of a fictional memoir written by Jim Burden about an immigrant girl named Ántonia with whom he grew up in the American West. Cather, like her character Jim, moved to Nebraska when she was ten years old, and she bases many of the events, characters, and settings of the novel on her own childhood experiences. The novel forms a sort of "trilogy" with two other prairie novels by Cather, O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915).
For its time and context, My Ántonia pushed the boundaries of traditional literature. First, its narrative structure is mainly built from episodes and anecdotes rather than a continuous storyline – Cather thinks nothing of jumping twenty years ahead in between chapters. For this reason, the novel is sometimes considered a modernist work (see "Genre" for more).
My Ántonia also blurs gender barriers. To begin, the novel is written by a woman but told through the eyes of a male narrator. Additionally, the characters in the story break from stereotypical gender roles – the women are strong, athletic, and active, while the men are generally passive and weak. Interestingly, while studying at the University of Nebraska, Cather herself used to wear men's clothing and go by the name "William."
Cather was also nontraditional in her choice of subject matter. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Cather chose to write about everyday people in the American West. My Ántonia focuses on the lives and concerns of average Nebraskans, including European immigrants – the kind of people that Cather grew up around. As a result, the novel provides modern readers a glimpse into the lives of the early white settlers of the American West.
Go west. It’s the motto that defined this country, that sent the pioneers steaming from Atlantic to Pacific, taming the Great Plains along the way. In a lot of ways, the spirit of those intrepid folks is, even to this day, celebrated in America. We value independence, hard work, courage, and ambition, and nobody has embodied that more neatly in our national history that the figure of the pioneer.
So, what did this heroic figure look like? Well, if you’ve watched any television, or read anything about this period, you’re probably imagining someone like this guy: rugged, determined, out to tame the wilderness with know-how and grit.
There’s just one problem with this picture, though. Where are all the women? When it comes to our picture of a pioneer, they are usually either hidden in a covered wagon, or somewhere inside the log cabin, boiling up a steamin’ helpin’ of squirrel stew (good for what ails ya!). Usually, we only get 50% of the picture when it comes to depictions of how these folks really lived: the male half.
That’s where My Ántonia comes in. If you are tired of wondering how the other half lived, read this book. It’s an invaluable reminder that life was hard for everyone on the frontier, and that the women who made a go of it were every bit as tough-minded and independent as the men were. Ántonia Shimerda is faces down the triple-hardships of scratching out a living on the prairie, while having to do so a woman, all while dealing with the challenges of being an immigrant as well.
So, if ever you should feel overlooked, or looked down upon, if you think that life has given you more than you can handle, pick up this book and get inspired. Learn a little, too. My Ántonia is a great reminder that the stories of pioneering, heroic men would not have been possible without the strength of the women who stood beside them. And anyone who says different is just talkin’ gibberish.