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My Antonia

My Antonia by Willa Cather
By: (1873-1947)

Two young children arrive in a small frontier settlement on the wild and desolate plains of Nebraska, on the same day and by the same train. Jim Burden is a ten year old orphan from Virginia who has come to live with his grandparents, while Antonia Shimerda who's the same age as Jim, arrives with her large, immigrant family from Eastern Europe to try and eke out a living in the New World. The children find themselves thrown together as they live in adjoining farms. Jim tutors Antonia in English and they become good friends as they grow up. However, life takes an unexpected turn when Mr. Shimerda commits suicide. The Burden family tries to help but things go badly wrong. They leave Nebraska to settle in town, while Antonia is forced to begin working as household help. The rest of the book poignantly traces the enduring friendship between the two.

My Antonia is part of Willa Cather's famous Prairie trilogy and the last book in the series. It is also considered one of her finest works. This beloved American writer documented the hardships and tough pioneering spirit of the first settlers in the inhospitable Midwest and the travails they had to endure in the early part of the 19th century.

The book is written largely in the form of a memoir told by the first person narrator, Jim Burden, who goes on to become a wealthy and successful New York attorney. He is deeply humane, thoughtful and introspective with an abiding love for the unspoiled beauty of the Nebraska Plains. He never forgets his origins and his friendship with the little Bohemian girl of long ago. Antonia Shimerda is one of the most attractive characters in American literature and is bold, free spirited, independent and generous. She is based on a real person, a Polish girl whom Willa Cather had hired as house help. Her love of life and her warm hearted, carefree yet strong attitude make her a lovable and memorable character.

The lyrical descriptions of the wild beauty of the landscape, Willa Cather's humanitarian outlook and the soul stirring narrative all make this a book to be read and reread. The role of the past in our lives, our deep connection with our environment and how it shapes us and the immigrant experience in America are some of the themes that are wonderfully explored in My Antonia.

This story of a paradise lost and in a sense, regained in the memory, is an absorbing read for both adults and older children.

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