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My Antonia

My Antonia - Willa Cather This was a return to another favorite novel which I have not read in many years. It has been too many as I'm ready to read the book again next week (but I will resist). Cather creates characters which symbolize their surroundings and she creates landscapes that are as central as her characters. This is not a writer with a need for experimentation -- she tells seemingly straightforward stories which can be peeled back in countless ways. While the book title focuses your attention on the young "Bohemian" Antonia, it is the narrator, Jim Burden, that carries the weight of the book. (Yes, I get the "Burden" and weight connection. Cather is great with names, my favorite being Wick Cutter, a character of more than questionable honor).This was the last of three "pioneer" books Cather wrote and through it we learn about the challenges of making it out West, which in this case is Nebraska. Her description of the landscape as a living entity is better than some of her minor characters, which at times could use some more depth. But we get to know Burden very well and Antonia is a foil for all that he goes through. She is the landscape which he returns to and finds weathered but still surviving.Cather also celebrates the ordinary, knowing that every ordinary life contains much which is extraordinary if we make the effort to see it. Burden talks about meeting up with Lena, one of his small town friends, when he is in the city studying at the university. He says:"...the Danish laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry."Women in Cather's novel are usually strong, and much has been made of this "feminist" mode of writing. Actually, it is a realist mode that many realists could not fathom since realists are by nature confined by their own limits of reality. It is no secret that women in the developing areas took on several roles that were ordinarily reserved for men. With a limited amount of people the settlers had to overcome sexism and racism in order to survive -- in some ways those "isms" can been seen as the "luxury" of those with options. Without options, people drop the stereotypes and seek help from each other. Cather understands this, perhaps because she spent her formative years in the Nebraska prairies.Cather's Nebraska prairies also provide a setting as remote as most science fiction novels; she uses that remoteness to magnify the human condition and character. Some are found wanting, some succeed beyond expectations, and many just meet their goals. But all of them find their condition and character challenged, and it is in the response that we get the story.Finally, (and I have more to say but this is a blog, not a book) Cather knows how to write. Her words are well chosen, evoke strong images, and are worth a slow read.