Thursday, January 20, 2005

On Returning to a Long-Loved Book

Book 5 of 2005 is Willa Cather’s classic My Ántonia. This may be the book I have read more than any other. I first read it for pleasure in my 30s. Later, I read and re-read it in my study of English literature. In the past few days, I returned to it after an absence of years. Like the book’s narrator Jim Burden, who renews his friendship with Ántonia after more than 20 years, I find the reunion sweet.

I have read most of Cather’s books. This, I believe, is her best book, her most heartfelt. Ántonia Shimerda, the Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska, who advances from childhood to middle age in the course of the book, is an archetype for the women who settled the vast American plains. Cather fervently believes that it was women who played a vital role in taming the prairie; at once a source of strength and nurture.

As Burden observes, Ántonia is “a rich mine of life.” I wrote this of Ántonia in 1987: “Her family and farm, her orchard, the crops bursting from a prairie she helped tame, are all evidence of her life-giving powers.” During his long-delayed visit to Ántonia, Jim Burden finds her aged but “in the full vigour of her personality, battered but not diminished.”

As a child of the plains, I find that My Ántonia resonates with me in a way few books do. I am impatient with most descriptions of landscapes, but I see Cather’s descriptions in my mind’s eye. Her sense of place is palpable. I have walked those prairies, and I know the small town life she captures so vividly.

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What a pleasure to return to a book, long-loved, but unopened after many years. Characters, scenes and settings come tumbling from the pages and from my memory. It is like re-visiting a loved, but long-neglected aunt. The experience is bittersweet, both powerful and disturbing. I wonder, “Why has it been so long?”

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