A Toast Raised to the Promised Land

13 January 2014

"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."
willa cather

Some books lend themselves to reviews, and still others do not. Long before I finished My Ántonia, I suspected it would fall into the latter category. Reviewing it in my typical fashion would drag all the beauty from its marrow and leave nothing but bones behind. It suits some stories to describe them in such terms, but this particular book is more a portrait than a roving plot.

And if the truth be known, I did not read Willa Cather's masterpiece with mental pro and con boxes in my head, eyes and pen alert for the points that would best suit each section. I simply read, and that doesn't happen often with assigned literature. I soaked in the richness of the author's prose, drinking up the wild beauty of the Nebraskan prairie until the coarse wind, golden wheat sheaves, and azure sky bled through my fingertips. I marveled at the endurance and courage of the immigrant pioneers, digging a life for themselves out of alien soil, their heartache and triumph threading through the pages like a crimson ribbon. More than anything else, the way Cather describes the changing of the seasons — barren winter to yielding, fresh-faced spring, jovial summer under the high sun to chilling, radiant autumn, and so forth — worked its way into my heart and marked a claim on a small part of my soul (in five years or so, it should be permanent).

I'd like to offer up some of the gems I've mined from the pages of this memoir. Don't try to swallow them whole — they're much better when taken with a dose of winter sunshine, and they'll leave a thrumming ache in your heart even so.

It was a day of amber sunlight, but there was a shiver of coming winter in the air.
book one, chapter vi

The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Ántonia said, the whole world was changed by snow; we kept looking in vain for familiar landmarks. . . . The wind had the burning taste of fresh snow; my throat and nostrils smarted as if someone had opened a hartshorn bottle. The cold stung and at the same time delighted one. . . . All about us the snow was crusted in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind.
book one, chapter ix

"My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never make music any more. At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like this, but never he make the music."
book one, chapter xiii

"Oh, great and just God, no man among us know what the sleeper knows, nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and Thee."
book one, chapter xvi

There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only — spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind — rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful . . ."
book one, chapter xvii

Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction.
book one, chapter xix

In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Ántonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Ántonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. . . . I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.
book five, chapter i

All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early nations.
book five, chapter i

[Lest you worry I won't be thinking critically about this novel at all, I have a literary analysis paper coming up with My Ántonia as its subject, so there will be plenty of time for discussion and disection at a later date. A season for every activity under heaven, you know.]

3 epistles:

  1. I ended up the same way after reading this book—I started to try and write a review, but never made it. It's not easy to classify or describe, but like you I really enjoyed it, especially the beautiful descriptive writing.

  2. I am so behind on commenting on all your beautiful posts, dear Elizabeth, but I've been reading and enjoying them, never fear!

    I've actually never heard of the novel, My Antonia before, but with all these beautiful snippets you've shared I am really curious to discover more about it. They are so beautiful (I am always partial to beautiful description!!). That one, My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never make music any more. At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like this, but never he make the music." touches a bit of a chord in me as I play the violin :D, and is so sad and wistful.

    I should look it up. And yes, sometimes some books cannot be confined to stuffy old reviews... :D. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Just the kind of review that fits My Antonia! It's such a lovely book. Thank you for sharing your favorite quotes ... it was splendid to relive my reading of it. The very last line of the whole novel (or near to it) is one of my favorites: "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past." That's how I feel about all my dearest friends.
    I love your book reviews!


"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

Related Posts with Thumbnails