Tag Archives: Willa Catha

Review of 'My Antonia' by Willa Catha

Available from Amazon.

Apparently ‘My Antonia’ is one of the staples of the American school English literature syllabus.  If so, good on them.  Much better than the tripe my very right-on English teachers got me to read – mainly Dylan Thomas and D H Lawrence.  I hated them then and I haven’t looked at their work since.  As I have said in a previous post, I read the nineteenth century classics in my twenties whilst commuting on trains up and down to London – but, Dear Reader, I didn’t come across Willa at that time, more’s the pity.

‘My Antonia’ is supposed to be the reminiscence of New York lawyer, Jim Burden, of his days as pioneer in Nebraska, Willa’s favourite stamping ground. The story starts with Jim and new immigrant, Antonia, as children, attempting, with their families, to make a living on the barren, uncultivated land, where the red grass grew. They learned to survive the harsh winters, although Antonia’s poor father, a delicate musician from ‘the old country’, did not see out even one. The story spans several decades as the children grow up, enjoying life as teenagers in the small frontier town of Black Hawk and Jim moving on to the big cities to university and to practise law.

Red grass, NebraskaWilla Catha’s work is always charming and innocent and the people so sweet and gentle that you wish that you lived amongst them, despite the harsh conditions. This is a very old fashioned work, which meanders circuitously through the years, with little or no plot except that of young people growing up and taming the harsh, virgin land. Loose ends abound. Antonia’s mother was clearly demanding and difficult, and the reader might expect her disagreeable character to affect the course of the story in some way, but she just fades from the pages. The same happens with her domineering brother Ambrosch, and Krajieck who overcharged her family for their land and the cave they lived in. Characters move in and move out, mirroring the structure of real life, more than a novel. Towards the end of the book, Larry Donovan figures largely in Antonia’s life but is probably mentioned less than half a dozen times. The writer, who appears in the first chapter only, doesn’t like Jim’s wife, but this theme isn’t developed either.

It is unclear who is the main character. The title would predicate Antonia herself and certainly she features largely, but Jim tells the story in the first person, with large portions of it to do solely with Jim himself and other characters, without Antonia. The relationship between Antonia and Jim is an enigma not properly resolved; at first playmates, then good friends, although they both had many other friends – lovers, never.

If ‘My Antonia’ had been taken to a modern writers’ workshop, it would’ve been torn to shreds by so-called experts, but yet, Dear Reader, I felt more in tune with the characters in this book, more involved and generally more interested, than in anything that written to the ‘rules’ we writers have to abide by now.

So would I recommend ‘My Antonia’. Yes, definitely.

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Review of 'O Pioneers' by Willa Catha

This book can be found on Amazon here.

‘O Pioneers’ starts with five year old Emil Bergson crying because his kitten is stuck up a tree and seeking the help of his sister, Alexandra.  At the end, the reader realises that this opening scene is an allegory for the novel as a whole.

When I readfredericksburg_room2 an old fashioned novel like this one, which was published in 1913, I wonder why I bother with contemporary fiction. This is the story of a woman farmer, Alexander Bergson, pitting her wits and holding her own with the land and her small village community.  Where’s the explicit sex?  There is none.  When does mc get drunk?  She doesn’t.  What drugs does she do?  She doesn’t.  Where are the self-destruct actions which typify many a spoilt, self-indulgent and navel-gazing modern novel characters?  Alexandra keeps her head at all times… as you would expect of a pioneer.  She is a protagonist who never let the reader down.  For modern examples, think of Anita Roddick and Karren Brady, single-minded, strong-willed and a good business head.

So what was there to write about?  Loads.   Like all best novels, ‘O Pioneers’ focuses on a family within a small community of Swedish immigrants, two characters in particular – Alexandra and her brother, Emil.  Other characters are kept to a minimum, a few, like ‘Ivar’, the eccentric horse-doctor, very distinct, whereas the rest, like Alexander’s two older brothers, were kept in the background.  Many points of view are used.  Midway through, I thought that this was going to be a story about the ups and downs of farming, good years and bad years, but it’s more than that, about how someone copes with the success  she had fought for.

All writing manuals advise fiction writers to allow their main characters at least one flaw and Alexandra did have one – she was too phlegmatic and unimaginative to put two and two together when two characters are getting too close.  Her reaction when she does find out is completely true to the period in which the novel was set and – inevitably – very non pc.  The emotional punch is consistently understated, but the author doesn’t shirk from killing off the person most dear to mc .

Like all older fiction, there was quite a lot of ‘tell’, evidence that this technique can be used effectively.  However, unlike many works of this era, ‘Ofredericksburg_room1 Pioneers’ did not include vast tracts describing scenery, but the atmosphere was implicit, with frequent references to ‘the old country’ and ‘proper Americans’.  I was put in mind of the later L M Montgomery novels.

So do I recommend it for reading?  Yes, emphatically.   Did I learn anything as a writer?  Yes.  It is possible to write an interesting and engaging novel about goodies.

The photos in this post are not of Nebraska, where ‘O Pioneers’ was set (because I haven’t been there), but taken by my husband at the Pioneer Museum in the delightful ‘German’ town of Fredericksburg, in Texas.

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