A prairie writer

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

When I was 10 or so, I discovered a row of books in the Jefferson library that I’d never seen, or I’d skipped by them. Or maybe I’d wandered into the adult section. For some time, I’d been waylaid by the “Silhouette Series,” biographies of the heroes of America – Betsy Ross, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Clara Barton — until the day I picked up a novel by the midwestern writer Willa Cather. I fell in love with each of her books in turn. O Pioneers! and Death Comes for the Archbishop kept me up late, but it was My Antonia that I read several times. And recently read again, three score years later.

Cather wrote a dozen novels, plus a few collections of short stories, poems and essays from the early teens through the 1930s. She wrote about many places, but her best writing was of the Midwest, Nebraska to be specific, where she and her family moved from the east coast when she was 9. She was suddenly in a place unlike Virginia in so many ways (the fierce climate topping the list) that she was variously charmed, delighted, bewildered and shocked.

Her tale that I most love Antonia’s, a young girl from a place in Europe the pioneers called Bohemia (Czechoslovakia). Antonia and her family were poorer than most of the pioneers and seemed to have the least savvy on what to do to survive. Her father wore a suit and vest, played a violin and read; her mother was crabby and disorganized (“…she was a conceited, boastful old thing, and even misfortune could not humble her”); one of Antonia’s brothers was slow-witted; her other brother was a hard-working mean boy.

Antonia herself was friendly to neighbors and learned from them. She figured things out on her own and loved all outdoors. She was happy if she was tending cattle, breaking sod with a single plow, or just wandering along the creek, running through the tall red grass of the prairie, spying on the prairie dog towns that covered acres of land; she liked to lie on her back on a rise of ground and watch the giant piles of cumulus clouds that seldom let go of a drop all summer long.

Like many memorable books, My Antonia is not so much about plot as about ordinary people living their lives. Not a lot happens with most of us, and it is like that with Antonia. She learns and makes friends, although her family doesn’t. She is enthusiastic about everything she sees and does. Even though she loves to dance, she loves the countryside more than the town. And her life unfolds as most of ours – memorable moments as well as crushing events we’d as soon forget while we’re growing up, marrying, having children.

It’s easy to like her and want the best for her because of her naivety, enthusiasm, sense of wonder and goodwill. There is plenty of conflict, there are bad decisions and horrible accidents, unsympathetic family, judgmental neighbors and a pretentious population in town that looks down on her and the rest of the eastern European immigrants. But she is also blessed with good friends, one, Jim Burden, who is the narrator of the story; and two country neighbor girls, Norwegian Lena and Bohemian Tiny. Burden tell us that “The Bohemian and Scandinavian girls could not get positions as teachers because they had had no opportunity to learn the language.” The older girls had to work on the farm taking care of the babies coming along and therefore never attended school. When they were old enough to bring money into the family, they were sent to town to work as servants.

Much of the drama and sadness in My Antonia is simply the unceasing hard work by newcomers to a harsh land. The writing is plain and full of wisdom and good stories, often lyrical when Cather talks about the prairie itself, the unusual beauty of its endlessness to all who came there when…

“The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm [the] story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.”

Whether true or not, that story is as appealing as a fairytale.

Jim the narrator says, “It must have been the scarcity of detail in that tawny landscape that made detail so precious.” And his maker, Willa Cather, wrote in observant detail about the prairie, a character as strong and well-drawn as Antonia herself – “When spring came, after that hard winter, one could not get enough of the nimble air…. As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

My Antonia is a worthwhile read for the sons and daughters – and now the great and great-great grands — of the pioneers. After 60 years, I remain awe-struck and admiring at what these heroes did, the backbreaking, soul-testing task of taming virgin prairie. Willa Cather tells our ancestral story.

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