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From The Reader Bookshelf… My Antonia by Willa Cather

Written by Maisie Jeynes, 11th November 2021

As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.

This week, Lisa Spurgin, our Teaching and Learning Coordinator, shares her thoughts on My Antonia by Willa Cather.


Words by Lisa Spurgin

"During that burning day when we were crossing Iowa, our talk kept returning to a central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had both known long ago. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood."

Coming-of-age stories have a particular resonance in literature – think of Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and many others. Perhaps it's because we've all been there; while we may not have experienced quite the same experiences, trials and tribulations as fictional counterparts, we all know what it's like to grow up, trying to find our own path and way through the world; often in a stumbling and uncertain manner, on roads littered with mistakes and missteps, as well as hallmarks and achievements. As these types of stories go, My Antonia is quite an incredible one, given where it is situated both in time and place, where change will not only be felt by individuals but across a whole country.

At the end of the 19th century, the orphaned Jim Burden rides a train from Virginia to Black Hawk, Nebraska, to live with his grandparents. Being only ten years old, he is accompanied by Jake, a farmhand. Jim is the narrator of the novel, but – as can be guessed from the title – is not the only person at the heart of the story. Travelling on the same train as Jim and Jake are the Shimerda family, who have left their homeland of Bohemia to make a new life in Black Hawk. Though they can little imagine it on that first day, Jim and Antonia, the eldest daughter of the Shimerdas, will form a friendship which crosses the boundaries of culture and time. Both Jim and Antonia will go on to become pioneers in their own ways as they navigate life and growing up against the vast and often harsh Nebraska landscape.

We journey along with Antonia and Jim, experiencing their joys and tragedies, as well as the more commonplace aspects of their day-to-day lives. Not only do we get to see how their relationship develops but are also introduced to a host of characters who make up the fabric of their lives; my personal favourites are Lena Lingard, Tiny Soderball and the other 'hired girls' who are striving to see their hopes and dreams become real in a world that is brave but tough. Though there are many people who pass through Jim's life, it is Antonia who has the most lasting impact, and the novel is a testament to the quality of the relationships that many of us experience in our lives; the people who never leave us, even when we branch – sometimes inevitably – in different directions.

I read My Antonia with a Shared Reading group that I co-lead with Katie Clark at the Mansion House at Calderstones (currently on hold), back in 2019. While it may not have been an immediate pick for something I'd choose to read myself, I'm so glad I got the chance to do so. The stories of Antonia and Jim evoked so much for our readers, and at the end it felt as though a remarkable journey had been made.

If you're missing exploring places further than the British Isles this year, I'd definitely recommend walking alongside Jim and Antonia.​

"Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."

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