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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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A Chance Meeting, by Francesca White

A Chance Meeting, by Francesca White

I first met Ántonia Shimerda entirely by chance, at the end of my second year as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. The summer exams had just finished and I was mooching around the cool North Wing of the library looking for something new to read. Specifically, I was looking for something American. Having spent the first two years of my degree systematically surveying the “literature of the British Isles 1300-present,” I was keen to look further afield and sample a whole New World of writing.

I’m not quite sure why My Ántonia, of all the books on the library’s miles of shelving, caught my attention that afternoon. Perhaps it was the heroine’s unusual name with its intriguing diacritical mark that struck me, or perhaps it was that perplexing pronoun, “My.” Who was this Ántonia and who was claiming her as their own? Keen to find out, I checked the book out of the library and devoured it in one afternoon.

Sitting 4,419 miles away from Red Cloud, Nebraska, in the tree-lined court of my college in Cambridge, England, there were many things in the novel that seemed strange to me. I remember that the concept of a “prairie-dog town” in particular had me reaching for my phone for a quick bit of Google research!

At the same time, however, there were so many things that I did recognize. Having grown up in Leicester—one of the most multicultural cities in the United Kingdom—I recognized at once Cather’s fascination with the varied cultures, traditions and, most importantly, languages imported into the United States by immigrant characters such as the Shimerdas, Peter and Pavel, Lena Lingard and Anton Cuzak. When I read Jim Burden’s recollection of how his ears “pricked up” when he first stepped off the train in Black Hawk and heard the Shimerdas speaking Czech (“it was positively the first time I had ever heard a foreign tongue”), I recalled how my ears used to prick up when, as a child, I heard my neighbors speaking Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati. Although prairie dogs and the Nebraska landscape were unfamiliar to me, the young Jim Burden’s intense feeling of curiosity in response to the multilingual, multicultural society in which he found himself struck a chord.

That moment of recognition has since led me on many adventures. I am currently writing my PhD thesis on multilingualism in Cather’s fiction and last year I was lucky enough to visit Lincoln and Red Cloud in order to explore the Cather archives. Sadly, I didn’t see any prairie dogs, but there’s always next time.

Last term, the story of my chance meeting with My Ántonia came full circle when I taught the novel to a class of first-year undergraduates at the University of Leicester. Initially, I felt some trepidation at the thought of leading a seminar on one of my favorite novels and introducing the students to Cather for the first time. Would they find the text interesting? Would it resonate with them as it had with me, or was the divide between twenty-first- century Leicester and nineteenth-century Nebraska simply too great?

I needn’t have worried. At nine o’clock sharp, the students arrived eager to discuss the fate of Mr. Shimerda (“Why was Krajiek’s axe found under the manger after Mr. Shimerda’s death?”), the identity of the first narrator (“Is it Cather?” “Why is the ‘following manuscript’ only ‘substantially as [Jim] brought it’ to him/her?”). They admired the grit shown by Ántonia, Lena and Tiny (“Tiny and Lena are modern businesswomen”). Such was the students’ enthusiasm that, when they handed in their essays at the end of term, I was unsurprised to discover that many of them had elected to write about My Ántonia. Maybe one day some of them will write theses on the novel, too.

It has been quite a ride since our chance meeting in Cambridge, Ántonia, but I’m so glad that it was you I picked off the shelf that sunny afternoon. It may be your one-hundredth birthday, but your power to capture the imaginations of readers the world over is as strong as ever. Many happy returns and here’s to the next century of chance meetings!

Author Bio

Francesca White is a PhD student at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. She is studying multilingualism in the work of Willa Cather. In 2017, she received the British Association for American Studies (BAAS) Malcolm Bradbury Award to fund research in the Willa Cather archives in Lincoln and Red Cloud, Nebraska.