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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Delight in Sharing My Ántonia, by Janie Mitchell

Delight in Sharing My Ántonia, by Janie Mitchell

My heritage as a native Nebraskan traces a familiar story of immigrants who arrived on the prairie to make new lives. As a little girl I was blessed on Thursday evenings with the whole family gathered around the table for Swedish coffee and dessert. This was the special custom at my grandparents’ home in Lincoln. I loved to listen to the stories shared by aunts, uncles, and my grandparents. This was also my first introduction to the story of my Swedish family who came by train and settled in Nebraska in 1882, one year earlier than the arrival of Willa Cather at nine years of age.

My grandfather in particular was full of stories. He was the first surviving son of Anders and Karin. Sadly, their two small sons from Sweden did not survive the hardships of harsh winters and illness in the new land. My grandfather first learned his ABCs in Swedish, as did his younger siblings in following years. Anders and Karin acquired enough English to help themselves and other Scandinavians who came to homestead. While he had few opportunities for a formal education, my grandfather became a fine journalist and published a newspaper. He was a great reader and he admired Willa Cather and her writing.

In my school days I encountered My Ántonia at Lincoln High School and again in English classes at the University of Nebraska. My Ántonia journeyed with me in later academic studies including seminary and doctoral work in spirituality and story. Reading and rereading this book never grows old. There is always something new to discover or consider. And nothing is better than to have others around a table to discuss our insights together.

With this in mind, I contacted my local librarians in Alexandria, Virginia, to plan discussions on My Ántonia for the hundredth anniversary year of publication. Three discussions were held in the fall and all were very well attended. On these occasions, people who were not regulars at library events also joined in lively conversation. Folks lingered for as long as two hours as we explored Cather’s beautiful prose and the art of this human story that rings true.

In the first discussion, one woman revealed she had moved to Red Cloud in 1947. She shared her memories and confirmed that the characters in My Ántonia were drawn from people in Willa Cather’s life in Red Cloud. This was a surprise to many around the table. I shared photos of the real Anna Sadilek Pavelka, whose life experiences were woven by Cather into the story of the strong, endearing Ántonia Shimerda Cuzak from Bohemia.

We shared our admiration for Ántonia’s endurance. She is able to rise above many adversities, including the suicide of her father, the need to work in the fields to support her family, the prejudice of town people against the immigrant “hired girls” from the country, and the railroad man who jilted her and left her pregnant. She rises above each trial and preserves life. Given the antipathy of her brother Ambrosch toward her “illegitimate” baby, Ántonia shows her strength by quietly delivering the baby alone in her room at night. This happened after the work day, even after herding the cattle into the corral. She continues on to be a good and loving mother.

It says so much about Willa Cather that she kept in touch with Anna Pavelka and others. She often sent helpful gifts to friends in Red Cloud, especially in the trying times of the 1930s. In the discussion groups people who had Nebraska or Midwest connections confirmed stories within the novel—the reality of suicide among immigrants overwhelmed on the prairie, the welcome presence of others who spoke the language of the old country, the vital importance of helpful neighbors who made a difference, and the plough that changed the lay of the land with the loss of the shaggy, red prairie grass—all true in their own family stories.

A poignant moment came as a lady named Marya shared her story. As a ten-year-old she told her father how frustrated she was with books about English people. Where were the stories about her Czech heritage? Her father handed her My Ántonia. She has loved reading Willa Cather ever since and cherishes her father’s well-worn copy of My Ántonia from 1926.

About a third of the people who came for the discussions had not read this book previously. Others had read it in high school years ago and now, in rereading, they found more to enjoy. Several English teachers came who had taught it many times. Some folk were intrigued to read My Ántonia again for the century celebration. There was enthusiastic agreement on the wonder of Cather’s beautiful, supple, yet simple writing. And everyone held favorite images from the story that were deeply implanted.

For myself, there is delight in the shared conversation we had around our common table. One of the evocative little scenes we discussed is Ántonia’s care of the small, green insect barely thriving at the turn of the season from autumn to coming winter. She gathers the little insect into cupped hands, talks to him gaily and indulgently in Bohemian, and presently he begins to sing. The thin, rusty little chirp reminds Ántonia of her village at home and a beggar woman called old Hata. The beggar woman sang old songs to the children in a cracked voice like this little insect’s chirp. Ántonia tenderly gives the insect a safe, warm hiding place in her hair, secured by her head scarf. Then Ántonia shares the little singing insect with her sad father and this gives him a moment of beauty and lovely recollection.

Willa Cather wrote about the little everyday things of life that matter so very much. Her observation of nature and people is profoundly graced. In My Ántonia we meet about fifty characters and Cather’s descriptions make them all memorable and alive in our imagination. I am glad the library discussions allowed us all to delight in this treasure of American art.

Author Bio

Janie Mitchell is an active member of the Willa Cather Foundation. She holds a Doctor of Ministry in Spirituality and Story from Wesley Theological Seminary. She teaches and leads spiritual retreats in Virginia and the wider mid-Atlantic.