Monday, October 31, 2016

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

My Ántonia is a book that is often read in American High School English classes, but fortunately not mine; they allowed me to discover one of the best books when I can actually appreciate it.

I listened to this book on Librivox while working on household chores. The readers were good, if not fully professional. You can also read it online here. I wrote this post as I listened to it. It took about four days; it's not very long. It's a great choice for an audio book because the style is very much focused on setting rather than plot.

Book One: The Shimerdas
Today I started bawling when I was listening to this book. It took me by surprise, that I would react so emotionally. But it was just so sad. The main character, ~12 year old Jim Burden was with his grandparents bringing some food to the Shimerda family, who was nearly starving to death. It was such a horribly sad image. The part that really made me cry was to hear how the Czech mother just broke down, how the family (but especially the mother) was so embarrassed that their visitors came without warning and saw their feet were wrapped in rags, how their house was nothing more than a shabby little hole in the ground, and it was freezing cold. It was like I could see it very clearly, and I could imagine my own ancestors feeling some of these same things; even if they didn’t suffer quite to that extreme being south in Texas where it never snows; they would have shared some of these feelings of despair and anguish and loneliness, missing their native land. Then, the dad, who I think suffers from depression, stands up and has his young 12-ish year old daughter Ántonia translate to the American neighbors that they weren’t beggars in the old country, that he is an educated, respectable craftsman, that they came across the Atlantic with over $1,000 but were conned somehow in New York with the exchange rates, and that they were basically cheated into some bad deals for house/property buying because of the language barrier. What a painful scene. I wish I could be there to help this poor family – my poor family – to settle into life in America. The Shimerda mom tries to thank the family by giving them some of her precious cooking ingredient brought from the old country, and explains that all food tastes better in Bohemia. The American grandma takes it, but doesn’t know what to do with it. The little American boy, who is the main character, sneaks one of the strange things and tastes it; it was only much later in his life that he learned it was a mushroom. Which yes, mushroom gathering and cooking is a huge part of Czech culture, even to this day.

There was an interesting and poetic reference to Mormons in this book, which of course I thought interesting:

All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn. 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 Jake’s 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.

Later, while making dinner, I started bawling again and had to turn off the book. My husband looked at me funny, “what?” I said, “Didn’t you hear what just happened?” “…”

It’s true; Cather talks in circles around the serious topics. She doesn’t say things directly, which adds to the charm of the book. You feel like you are experiencing the story with the characters.

But it is also extremely obvious to me that the author is a woman trying to write from the point of view of a boy (as opposed Škvorečky writing from the point of view of his alter-ego Danny Smiričky). This, along with some very subtle references and of course reading this as a 21st century American, adds a theme of homosexuality that may or may not have been the author’s original intention.

Mr. Shimerda kills himself. I thought it was just an accident, but Cather lets you find out the same way Jim Burden finds out: by listening to the adults talk about it. It was when one of them says, “Did you see the gun?” that I just started bawling. It was really emotional for me, much, much sadder than I was prepared for.

And this theme of suicide continues through the book. It is really quite dark in some ways.

It was also really sad when Ántonia is crying about not being able to go to school, but Jim is totally oblivious to that.

Book Two: The Hired Girls
Cather also explores the class issues that the Czech immigrants had to deal with, and that certainly were also a part of my ancestors’ lives. She vaguely alludes to pregnancy outside of marriage, but it is never broached directly.

Jim gets extremely angry with Tony when that incident happens at Mr. Cutter’s house.  Mr. Cutter,  Tony's employer, acts really strange and Tony asks for Jim to sleep there overnight while she stays with his grandma. Mr. Cutter,  who is supposed to be away, secretly comes back and jumps on the bed,  who is supposed to have Tony in it,  but really has Jim. Apparently he was planning to rape her. Mr. Cutter, on finding out it is Jim, beats him and accuses him of sleeping around with Tony. Jim is angry, but weirdly his anger is partially directed at Tony, which is really confusing; shouldn't he have been happy that apparently he rescued her from rape, instead of being angry that now he’s going to be accused of fooling around with her?

Jim is totally oblivious that both Tony and Lena are in love with him, and that Lena is super jealous of Tony. I don’t really like Jim that much.

Book Three: Lena Lingard
In this book, Lena (A Swedish working girl who was friends with Ántonia) basically starts dating Jim with zero intentions of becoming serious, or anything more than friends. She's a likable enough character,  but she has some really sad thoughts about marriage and motherhood :

“The Colonel would marry you in a minute. I hope you won’t marry some old fellow; not even a rich one.”

Lena shifted her pillows and looked up at me in surprise. “Why, I’m not going to marry anybody. Didn’t you know that?”

“Nonsense, Lena. That’s what girls say,but you know better. Every handsome girl like you marries, of course.”

She shook her head. “Not me.”

“But why not? What makes you say that?” I persisted.

Lena laughed. “Well, it’s mainly because I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.”

“But you’ll be lonesome. You’ll get tired of this sort of life, and you’ll want a family.”

“Not me. I like to be lonesome. When I went to work for Mrs. Thomas I was nineteen years old, and I had never slept a night in my life when there weren’t three in the bed. I never had a minute to myself except when I was off with the cattle.”

Usually, when Lena referred to her life in the country at all, she dismissed it with a single remark, humorous or mildly cynical. But to-night her mind seemed to dwell on those early years. She told me she couldn’t remember a time when she was so little that she wasn’t lugging a heavy baby about, helping to wash for babies, trying to keep their little chapped hands and faces clean. She remembered home as a place where there were always too many children, a cross man, and work piling up around a sick woman.

“It wasn’t mother’s fault. She would have made us comfortable if she could. But that was no life for a girl! After I began to herd and milk I could never get the smell of the cattle off me. The few underclothes I had I kept in a cracker box. On Saturday nights, after everybody was in bed, then I could take a bath if I wasn’t too tired. I could make two trips to the windmill to carry water, and heat it in the wash-boiler on the stove. While the water was heating, I could bring in a washtub out of the cave, and take my bath in the kitchen. Then I could put on a clean nightgown and get into bed with two others, who likely hadn’t had a bath unless I’d given it to them. You can’t tell me anything about family life. I’ve had plenty to last me.”

“But it’s not all like that,” I objected.

“Near enough. It’s all being under somebody’s thumb. What’s on your mind, Jim? Are you afraid I’ll want you to marry me some day?”

If we all thought like this, there would be no more humanity. It is good that we have a powerful innate desire to share our lives with another human, and also a drive to create new human life together. This is the ultimate level of trust: trusting them enough to give them everything. It is very sad that Lena's circumstances led her to the disillusioned idea that celibacy is a satisfactory substitution. But I say this as a married person, of course. I was never nearly as happy before I was married.

I wonder if part of me thinks that everyone *should* marry. I feel like everyone should have the chance to feel the kind of happiness I have in my marriage, otherwise life would be utterly unfair. But it clearly is just that: utterly unfair. So I don't know.

Book Four: The Pioneer Woman
Of course here my heart broke again to find my beloved Czech heroine ruined by a selfish jerk who promised to marry her, but kept delaying until she couldn't stand it any more and she went off with him, with both her head and hope chest full. He used her for a month and then abandoned her, pregnant (though she didn't know it yet I'm sure.) She had to return to her mother's house in shame and disgrace and deal with the fallout alone. It was so sad. She was not deserving of such a miserable outcome.

Yet through it all, she continued to work hard and be true to her family. When the baby was born, she made it her sole purpose to provide a better life for her child.

Jim Burden goes to see her and stupidly tells her how he wishes that he could marry her, or be her brother etc. He can't, which is so frustratingly weak. Why can't he just suck up his pride and marry her, like he has always wanted? She made some terrible choices with lasting consequences, and they are not in the same social class, but they are definitely intellectual equals and he is completely crazy in love with her. I don't like invisible class barriers. They are so sad. They should not prevent an otherwise perfect match. I really don't like Jim very much anymore. He's likable, but so, so weak.

Book Five: Cuzak’s Boys
Ántonia meets Jim twenty years later,  after she marries a poor Bohemian named Cuzak. I last left them in her house, where she is showing Jim her twelve children. They are poor (so poor they pickle the watermelon rinds!  Ugh!) but happy. Jim has graduated from Harvard and is still a bachelor, so I'm guessing he's about 44. So who really ended up ruining their life,  Jim who has apparently so far made no lasting meaningful interpersonal human connections, or Ántonia who made the best of her life despite the really difficult circumstances?

Reading this in the  21st century, I can see an obvious homosexual reading of the story. That Jim had been the lover of his school teacher in Omaha, and that this, more than anything, was the main obstacle to his marrying Ántonie. I can just imagine discussing this issue for hours and hours in my high school English class. Well, it is a really sad theme if that is the main obstacle, and I feel sad for him. I still think he's weak though; not my most admired protagonist.

Reflections at the end of the book:
Cather makes a claim with which I do not agree with: that the entire fates of Jim and Ántonia were predetermined when they were country children, essentially by other people. I don't agree with the idea that we are basically powerless over our destinies. Our circumstances surely shape our identities, but they don't control our choices. Maybe the setting determines what we are, but it doesn't determine who we become.

I wonder if Ántonia is a little bit of a Mary Sue. I don't think so exactly, but I do think that Jim Burden is head over heals in love with her without being able to admit it to himself. Personally, I relate to Ántonia a thousand times more than to Jim: if I lived in that world, I would be a lot like her both in her outgoing character and in her Czech heritage.

Background historical knowledge gained from this book:
  • Loneliness, homesickness and depression definitely affected Czech immigrants to the United States, which I understand a lot more now.
  • Suicide as a theme. This happens at least three times in this book.
  • Early Czech immigrants sacrificed a lot more than leaving their home country. Ántonia sacrificed her entire education, which surely factored into her desperation, her “ruin”, but then later her choice to marry a Bohemian
  • Czech immigrants might not have been prepared for the rural conditions/lifestyle they would have to face in America. Mr. Shimerda was a highly skilled craftsman, and a musician - not a farmer.
  • Evil people take advantage of immigrants, and this still happens today.
  • Class prejudice as a theme.
  • Early Czech immigrants probably had more solidarity with other European immigrants than the later ones who came after their communities were established. Community was hugely, hugely important to Czechs. It would have been easier to immigrate after the first wave.
  • Later Czechs might have clung more fiercely to their communities. Towards the end of the book, everybody is astonished that Jim knew what kolačes were, and had seen that famous Czech singer, even though he had grown up with Ántonia and knew all about her culture and life.  
  • Rural life was really difficult and a lot of work.
  • But a lot of things back then were the same as now. People dealt with mental illness, awkwardness, homesickness, unrequited "impossible" love, etc.
  • Dreams of returning to the old country were real. I wonder if my ancestors ever dreamed of returning, or if they ever did manage to return just to visit.

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