Great American Road Trip
Book: My Antonia by Willa Cather
Remember to click over to Music Road to get your music for the road recommendation for the Great American Road Trips’ visit to Nebraska.
I may have just figured out why I prefer historical novels about places to current-day novels depiction of a locale. It seems to me that as a general rule (enough with the weasel words, already!)–Today everybody wants to prove that they are just like everybody else. Therefore if you want to see how unique a destination is, you need either a) an outsider who may have a superficial look and miss a lot of essentials; or b) an insider who truly knows the history. Obvious choice.
So when I was pondering what book might reflect Nebraska for the Great American Road Trip, I recalled that I had read a really terrific American classic a few years ago, Willa Cather‘s My Antonia. There may be a contemporary Nebraska writer who captures place as well as Willa Cather, but I’ll have to be convinced. I will admit that the Nebraska she describes exists in smaller pockets nowadays, but aren’t we blessed to have her descriptions of the land?
“There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”
“As I looked around, I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…And there was so much motion in it, the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”
Wow! I am right there with Jim, the young boy who has recently moved from the very different land of Virginia to live with his grandmother and grandfather in the grasslands of Nebraska. (In fact Willa Cather had made such a move as a child from Virginia to Red Cloud, Nebraska.)
Antonia (pronounced with the accent on the ‘i’–An-toe-NEE-a) is the youngest member of a family of Bohemians who arrive on the same train, and Jim and she become good friends. (Although she did not meet her in childhood, Cather based the story on a Bohemian girl she met whose life parallels the fictional Antonia.)
I won’t retell the story, as a good number of the readers of A Traveler’s Library will already have read it, and those who have not should enjoy discovering it on their own. I will just say that besides those gems of description of the land that make you feel that you can smell the dust and feel the winter wind, and smell the spring flowers, Cather has a skill of developing fully rounded characters. I came away feeling that I could paint these people. That I would recognize them on the platform at the train station. That I had seen them in a faded photograph with curling edges.
Writers like Willa Cather go in and out of fashion. Personally, I’m glad that we have such a skillful wordsmith to recreate America’s past, and believe that My Antonia, Oh Pioneers!, and other Cather novels serve travelers well to understand the vast prairie lands just west of the middle of the United States.
I’ve been in Nebraska, briefly, but when I return, I’ll make it a point to visit Red Cloud, where you can go on a walking tour of buildings related to Cather.
You can purchase My Antonia in many different forms. I found it at my library in one of my favorite series–The Library of America, Cather: Early Novels and Stories. The pictures used here come from Flickr and are used with the Creative Commons License. Please click on the photo to meet the photographer and learn more about the photograph.
We’ve talked about other plains states along the GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP–Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. Are you a Willa Cather fan? If so, what Cather book would you like to recommend? My Antonia is about an immigrant family. If you have read it, have you thought about comparing the reactions of Nebraskans in pioneer days to immigrants and reactions to immigrants today?