Honestly, not all that much happens in My Ántonia, one of Willa Cather’s great “pioneer novels” of the early twentieth century, except two people grow up, and that proves to be enough. Sure, you keep waiting for the protagonist, Jim Burden, to finally get together with his “country girl” object of affection and Bohemian immigrant Ántonia Shimerda, though you know from the introduction that Jim eventually married some haughty New York type that his old friends disapprove of. And sure, then you keep waiting for Jim to get together with Lena Lingard, Ántonia’s erstwhile best friend and one of those “provocative” girls the townspeople spread unfounded rumors about. That neither (really) happens is actually to the novel’s credit—this is, ultimately, a story about friendship, and it brought tears to my eyes.
Of course, Cather’s a great writer (your books don’t make it into the pantheon of great American literature if you’re not), and her prose is beautiful, but more than that, she’s an amazing storyteller. Her tales are riveting: Why Ántonia’s father’s two Russian friends and associates had to leave home (they lighten their carriage load to save themselves by tossing a newlywed couple into the pack of savage wolves that stalk them); Ántonia’s father’s struggle, heartbreak and eventual destruction; the last encounter (that the reader is allowed to witness, that is) between Jim and Ántonia, when he’s able to get over his disappointment in her disappointments and relish that she has managed to achieve real happiness, despite everything.
Most notably, however, Cather is able to illuminate the romance and subdued glory of the West—even in me, born and raised in Brooklyn, who’s never even set foot in Nebraska and whose ventures west of Chicago have been few and far between. Of course the urban-dwelling reader feels sympathy for Ántonia, having to herd all those cows all day—and, needless to say, for the poverty that afflicts her family; if any novel pins down the turn-of-the-century “immigrant experience” in America, this is it. (Ántonia’s family would have been the beneficiaries of the Homestead Act, which allowed immigrant families to own assigned land that they managed to successfully cultivate—the dirty little secret, of course, being that most couldn’t survive the physical and financial hardships of life on the plains.) And so much of that experience revolved around success, around proving that all the wherewithal it took to leave home and all the heartache, homesickness and cold winters that ensued weren’t for naught.
That Lena Lingard “succeeds,” manages to escape that “country girl” label, and Ántonia doesn’t—mostly because of one specific hit of bad luck—disappoints Jim more than anything, especially considering his own trajectory from the University of Nebraska to Harvard Law School to successful New York lawyer. Only in the last part of the book, when Jim visits Ántonia with her family, finally lets go of his love-infused dream of what he always wanted her to be and accepts the reality, does Ántonia become fully realized in his eyes. Jim falls into that all-too-familiar trap of viewing other people (especially his Ántonia) as supporting characters in the narrative of his life; the happy ending isn’t so much that Ántonia finds contentment in her so-called modest life (she was always remarkably happy, wherever she was), but that Jim grows up. He relinquishes his possession of her story and lets it become their story, finally giving Ántonia her full due.