Sunday, October 21, 2007

A New Friend

Can someone tell me how, in all my years as an English student and lover of literature, I never read a novel by Willa Cather? I just finished My Atonia, and I am looking forward to many more years of enjoying Cather’s writing. If you haven’t read anything by her, I highly recommend My Antonia as a starting point. I promise you will want to read more. This novel was just what I was needing. I have been reading too much lately that is either highly cross-cultural , depressing, or mind-stretching. None of those things are necessarily bad, but this novel was so fresh and comforting to me.

My favorite writers are those that make me stop and say “This is true…yes, that is how it is.” When I stop in the middle of a description of a person or an experience and realize that that is how I always wanted to say it and never could, I know I have found a kindred spirit. When I get to the end of a novel and sit back to breathe deep of its essence, I have found a lifelong friend. Willa Cather is one of those writers.

My Antonia is the story of the people and values by which America was settled, sort of a grown up Little House on the Prairie. My husband’s maternal grandparents were the children of Polish and Czech immigrants, and I have seen immigrant values firsthand since marrying into the family. His grandmother raised nine children with one hand, literally. The other was cut off in a bad accident when she was a young married woman. And those values, of working hard, making much of little, and refusing to submit to self-pity, were passed down to her children. When I mentioned this book at her birthday dinner last night (88 and going strong), Grandma said she read it once a long time ago and loved it.

The novel follows the story of Antonia Shimerda, daughter of Bohemian immigrants, from the time her family settles in Nebraska until she begins her own family on the Nebraska plains. The story is told from the point of view of Jim Burden, a boy slightly younger than Antonia, who moves to the plains from Virginia to live with his grandparents. I won’t tell any more than that, but I will say that this novel is beautiful. Cather’s language is simple and true, and the narrator’s reflections on the strength of the women who settled America are poignant. Here are a few gems:

Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. (Oh, to be like that!)

There was a basic harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had strong, independent natures, both of them. They knew what they liked and were not always trying to imitate other people. They loved children and animals and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. (Oh, to have daughters, or daughters-in-law, like that!)

When I closed my eyes I could hear them all laughing – the Danish laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys…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…This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish. (I love how his captures the link between the poetic and the everyday, earthiness of hardworking, real women.)

And my favorite...

As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world.

In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.

It's almost enough to make me want to move out West, almost. Southern lit has a few gems, too! What about you? What friends have you found in literature?


Catherine said...

Oh, I won't even begin to list my literary friends...I wouldn't stop talking for days. You know me and books!

I read My Antonia about two years ago - also my first Cather novel. I thought her description of the prairies was stunning - I just wish they weren't extinct. I so frequently call to mind her descriptions and wish I could see them, wish we hadn't destroyed them...

Elizabeth said...

I'll add this book to my list, as it seems like one I'd enjoy. I remember Cather from high school American lit, but I think I'd probably take in her writing differently now!

As for literary, I'll have to think on that. I feel like I've been into reading-lite lately. It's been a while since I've had one of those "ah, I've found a friend" moments with a book.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Jan Karon can totally be a literary friend.