My Antonia

9781593082024_p0_v3_s114x166book by Willa Cather

annotation by Christin Merwald

I chose to read this book as an example of how to utilize place as force in my work. Cather’s turn-of-the-century Nebraska prairie and its small towns affected tone, plot and characterization in My Antonia. Her vivid, panoramic descriptions of the prairie also created memorable images that stay with the reader long after finishing the book.

We’re introduced to Nebraska with this passage, “There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields…There was nothing but land:  not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” (12) This glimpse of Jim’s new home sets the tone and introduces the book’s plot. Jim’s Nebraska was raw and empty when he first arrived and throughout the story we watch not only him and the other main characters develop into adults, but also the land become inhabited and developed.

Throughout the book Cather uses the changing of seasons to create changes in tone and plot. Jim’s description of spring brings a new feeling of awakening. “When spring came…one could not get enough of the nimble air…There was only—spring itself: the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere; in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted.” (95) Upon this change in season Jim and Antonia begin feeling differently about each other, more independent and less connected. As this spring unfolds the plot unfolds into Antonia becoming a hard working daughter, helping to provide for the family as Jim enjoys the comforts of living in an established farmstead and then in town.

Cather is also able to adjust tone by contrasting prairie passages with town passages. She juxtaposes the difference between winter on the prairie and in a small town at the start of Chapter 7. “On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men’s affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice. But in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk.” (142) She uses setting to develop characters; most notably the hired girls who move from doing arduous work in the country to the city to find work as maids. “The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, uninquiring belief that they were ‘refined,’ and that the country girls, who ‘worked out,’ were not…The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten…One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our county were the first to become prosperous.” (154)

Place not only develops characters in this novel, but becomes a character in some places. For example, “The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing through the big spaces. Each gust, as it bore down, rattled the panes, and swelled off like the others.” (45) Here Cather uses the fierce prairie wind to illustrate the desperation to help and then the sad retreat of the characters that watch illness defeat their friend, Pavel.

Place often plays the role of antagonist in the book. When Jim takes the Shimerda girls on what is supposed to be a fun sleigh ride they quickly learn that the bitter Nebraska winter can be a force to be reckoned with. “…The east wind grew stronger and began to howl; the sun lost its heartening power and the sky became gray and somber…Antonia and I sat erect, but I held the reins clumsily, and my eyes were blinded by the wind a good deal of the time…The next day I came down with an attack of quinsy…I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold. I admired the cheerful zest with which grandmother went about keeping us warm and comfortable and well-fed.” (54) The reader is pulled into many scenes hoping that the characters can overcome the adversity they face on the prairie and we learn quickly that they may not overcome.

My favorite scene is when Jim describes the July heat. “It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odored cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green…The burning sun of those few weeks, with occasional rains at night, secured the corn.” (108) The image Cather creates of the cornfields in July is so imaginative yet so realistic. It is a very accurate portrayal that only one who’s experienced it can know. Her intimate knowledge of the landscape, the feeling of being in a cornfield at that time of year makes for a truly unique and memorable image, which is the case throughout the book.

What I learned from this book was to think of place as a character. How can I use the setting to develop my characters, move the story forward and create adversity? Each description of a character’s surroundings can create a mood or affect on the reader. As I work on my current piece I’m trying to go about scene descriptions very slowly, thinking carefully about what sights, sounds, smells to include and how they can move the story forward. Also, I’m considering where to juxtapose place to accomplish something in the manuscript and where to insert relevant details that establish my characters in time and place in order to place the reader more firmly in the world of my characters. And, finally, I’m trying to incorporate both tight descriptions of place with panoramic views to create sweeping scenes like Cather.

 

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