My Ántonia, My Middle Name

My middle name is Antonia.  It comes from my great grandmother, Antonia Montosa Juanes, who was born in Hawaii to immigrants from Spain.  She married Felix Juanes, from Spain, and had eight children, one of whom is my grandmother, Eulalia.  From these fantastic people, I got my beautiful middle name and I also got to be a quarter Spanish.  I’m proud of this heritage.  I feel like it makes me unique, and it also gives me the excuse to visit Spain, which I plan to do with my Dad in December.

You probably noticed that the book title, My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather, has an accent over the name.  My middle name does not.  This is the difference between the Spanish version of the name and the Bohemian version of the name.  Ántonia in the book is from a Bohemian family who is trying to make good on the land of Nebraska.  They work hard, suffer many blows, and live in a dugout.  Jim Burden, the story’s protagonist, is an orphan who comes to live with his grandparents, who are also settling Nebraska.  Jim and Ántonia become friends, a bond that lasts their entire lives.

Essentially, it is Anne of Green Gables meets Little House on the Prairie with more literary aims.  Willa Cather’s portrayal of the settling of the West is certainly heartwarming, but it does not leave out the gritty parts. For example, Ántonia lives in a dugout with her family.  This is not a pleasant place to live, and honestly I was surprised by this because the first time I read My Ántonia, my only other experience in reading about a family living in a dugout had been By the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  As a child, I remember wanting to live in a dugout because of Laura.  As an adult, I realized that living in a dugout was miserable, cold, dirty, and grim once I had read My Ántonia.

The book also gives a realistic portrait of the plight of immigrants.  I mentioned my Spanish ancestors earlier.  Because of them, stories about immigrants settling in the United States appeal to me.  However, what Ántonia Shimerda and her family endure to finally succeed on the land is overwhelming and humbling.  Not only does it make me grateful for indoor plumbing, running water, and grocery stores, but it makes me reflect more soberly on my ancestors’ plights.  My grandmother has often told me stories of her youth, which consisted of outhouses, living in a chicken coop, having only one dress, and being barefoot.  I remember listening to these stories with jollity and happiness.  My grandma always made them appealing and fun.  In the stories, my great grandmother Antonia is always the kind, patient, and loving mother who put up with her children’s antics.  I’m sure the stories are true, as true as my grandma can remember.  But I’m also sure that Antonia, for whom I am named, had moments of frustration and panic.  I’m sure she was tired from working in the cannery at night and caring for her eight children as a single mother during the day.  I’m sure she felt as if all hope had been lost when her husband never came home from the hospital, where he died of pneumonia at a young age.  I’m sure they, like the Shimerdas, wished that things were better.  And because Willa Cather so honestly portrays all of this, the delightful and the very ugly, her novel has withstood the test of time.  She doesn’t sugarcoat the adventure of settling Nebraska.  Suicide happened, and Cather did not leave that part out.  Bankruptcy happened, and Cather did not leave that out.  Wolf attacks happened (okay, that was in Russia, but it’s still part of the story), and Cather did not leave that part out either.

Cather seems to realize the importance of these stories.  She knew that the settling of the West is part of the American mythology.  She portrays this with the most famous scene from the book, in which Jim and Ántonia look out across the prairie.  Here’s what they see:

“Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky.  Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun.  We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it.  In a moment we realized what it was.  On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field.  The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc; the handles, the tongue, the share―black against the molten red.  There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun” (118).

And this is the message of the book.  It’s the idea that the building of the West is a mythical event, one best symbolized by the sun setting behind a plough.  For that’s what our ancestors did.  They worked the land in order to live.  They were tied to the land, just as we are, although we likely don’t revere it as we should or take care of it enough or even realize how much we need the land to sustain our lives.  The plough represents this human connection to the land.  The land is our lifeblood.

Willa Cather is one of the finest American novelists.  If you haven’t read My Ántonia, now is the time to do so.  If you have read it, but you were forced to in junior high or high school and hated it, now is the time to read it again with your grownup eyes.  Appreciate her deft descriptions and her mission to create a mythology for our nation.  Joan Accocella has written a fine piece about Cather that you may also enjoy here.  And because of my name, I will always have a connection to one of Cather’s greatest novels, My Ántonia.

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