Apology to Willa Cather and My Antonia

For years, when the topic of high school reading came up, I would say that, for the most part, I was oblivious to the meaning of most of the classic American library. And, I would say that I remembered almost nothing, except for a book by Willa Cather, My Antonia. I also would say that I hated the book. Yet, it was one of the few books that I read then that I still remember bits and pieces.

In a previous blog about snow and spring, I dropped a reference to Willa Cather.

Later, I started to think about my attitude about My Antonia. If I hated it so much, why did certain images from the book still resonate with me, 50 years after I read it?

I went online and found the official Willa Cather organization. Willa was born in 1873, in Back Creek, Virginia, with the name of Wilella Cather. Later, she changed her name to Willa and her birth date to 1876.

In 1877, after some misfortune, Willa’s parents decide to move to Nebraska and reunite with her father’s brother. Willa’s recollections of this time and, in particular, her friend Anna led to her most famous book, My Antonia which was published in 1918.

It is that book, her fourth novel, which has quietly bedeviled me.

I went online to see what was available for my Kindle. I was pleasantly surprised to find that My Antonia and several of her other novels were available at no cost. I promptly downloaded My Antonia, O Pioneers (the first of the Nebraska novels), and The Song of the Lark (a fictionalized account of the life of a friend who was an opera singer.)

I immediately fired up the Kindle and began reading. Within two pages I was mesmerized: like a snake charmer’s cobra my imagination swayed back and forth and from side to side. I was captured by Willa’s words; their sound, cadence and collective imagery left me breathless, powerless.

As I read, I realized that it is her clarity of prose and distillation of the moment that I have always strived for. How could I think or say that I hated this amazing book?

Perhaps, being a shallow youth, I really did not care for it. Perhaps my dyslexia and the resulting impatience biased me at the subconscious level. However, there was some part of me that must have drunk it in, realizing that I was being offered something precious.

I’m about 2/3 of the way through My Antonia. I frequently stop to reflect on the vanished world Willa describes: immigrants creating farms on the still pristine prairie, small town dynamics, and the inner lives of the characters. Unlike in high school and college where all my reading was under tight deadlines, now I am able to savor the story and let my imagination fill in the blanks.

Dear Ms Cather,
Even though this comes too late for you to hear it, I owe you an apology and a note of gratitude.  Thank you for your well crafted prose. Thank you for Antonia, Jim, the endless seas of red prairie grass, the bitter winters and Saturday night dances.
Thank you for patiently waiting for me to return to you.


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