My favourite novel in the English language is My Ántonia, by Willa Cather, though I’ve always felt a little abashed saying that aloud. Abashed not because the book doesn’t have tremendous literary merit, but because my connection to it feels personal and innermost and exclusive, as if the book has become, over the years, a secret friend.
I read it for the first time 15 years ago, after landing a job teaching English at a private boarding school in Vermont. Fresh out of graduate school, I was highly suspicious of both my degree and my fitness to teach anything to anyone. Deep in the throes of fraud anxiety, then, I went to a used bookstore and promptly snapped up everything I thought I should have already read in order to get the job I’d just received. One of these volumes was My Ántonia, and I’d only read a few paragraphs when Cather’s gorgeous sentences and imagery had their hooks in me.
The book begins when newly orphaned ten-year-old Jim Burden travels from Virginia to Black Hawk, Nebraska to live with his grandparents. The American West captures Jim’s imagination before he even fully sees it. Peering over the side of an open wagon in the middle of the night, he says, ‘There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.’
Jim, too, is latent potential. His coming of age is shaped by the American frontier – by how much this hardscrabble land requires and exacts – and also by Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant girl who quickly becomes his closest friend.
Lively and tenacious and fiery-willed, Ántonia grows more and more essential to Jim. He falls in love with her, naturally, but more than this, comes to see her as an ideal human – what life is and can mean to those who live wholly, instinctively, from the heart.
Later, when they’re both adults leading separate lives, Jim returns to Nebraska to visit Ántonia and her growing family, and realises just how completely she has shaped the person he’s become. ‘Whatever we had missed,’ he tells us in the final lines – words that never fail to bring tears and an intense nostalgia for my own childhood, also spent in the American West – ‘we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
The 2011 Mslexia Writer's Diary contains a series of monthly inspirations from current Virago authors who each discuss a Virago Modern Classic.
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