The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
Set in rural Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, My Antonia is the story of a Czech immigrant as observed by Jim Burden a young boy who arrives in Nebraska on the same train as her. Jim is going to live his with grandparents after the death of his parents. He and Antonia turn out to be neighbours and they become friends. Later Jim finds himself in love with her but their lives diverge when Jim goes to college to study law and Antonia stays behind. Antonia is duped by a man whom she believes intends to marry her and has a child out of wedlock. Later she marries another Czech immigrant and together they have a large and happy family. Jim returns, a successful lawyer, is reunited with Antonia and meets her husnband and children.
The plot is not a strong one but the strength of this book is in its evocation of place and of the way of life of the early settlers in the American West. It is considered Cather's first masterpiece, though I preferred the less highly regarded O Pioneers. Nevertheless, there is an intensity of feeling for the way of life of those early settlers and a lyricism about the landscape in which they struggled to survive that lends a kind of luminosity to the writing. Willa Cather's ability to focus on the commonplace and elevate it into something beautiful and full of significance marks her out as a writer of real talent and an important chronicler of the American experience.