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Places to Go: My Antonia by Willa Cather

Written by Rachael Norris, 17th July 2020

This week, Lisa Spurgin reads from the novel My Antonia by Willa Cather.

Out of the four seasons of the year, it seems to me that summer has a multi-layered quality to it, almost occupying several dimensions of time in anything as small as a single hour. I find that I can feel most ‘in the moment’ on a summer’s day when there are no obligations other than to sit back and feel the warmth of the sun on my face, being in the world as it leisurely moves along. Yet at the same time, such days often have the habit of bringing me back through time to the summer holidays that seemed to last a lifetime when I was younger. Though the memories of seasons past come back vividly into my mind during long, light evenings they also appear as another place, a different country almost, that I can watch a video of and reminisce about but never return to, my passport having long expired.

I get these same feelings of hopping about and living through several experiences in a short space of time while reading this extract from the novel My Antonia by Willa Cather. In Black Hawk, the town in Nebraska where the story is set, the winters are long and harsh. The delights of summer seem all the more amplified to Jim, the narrator of the story, as he finds himself in the thick of it, off for the afternoon for a picnic with Antonia – his oldest friend from childhood – and ‘the hired girls’ who have come to make their livelihoods in the countryside. I love the descriptions in this piece of the various flowers that are in bloom, including those of the elder bushes that are like pagodas – perfect for hiding within, a refuge within an already serene place. As well as the sights there come the quintessential sounds of the season, ‘the high, singsong buzz of wild bees and the sunny gurgle of the water underneath’. It sounds so idyllic that I find myself wanting to be there, feeling how Jim does at that moment in time: ‘…overcome by content and drowsiness…’.

At the same time, however, he remembers earlier summers that were spent hunting and fishing in the same landscape with another friend, and as he occupies both the past and present he is also aware of his future and an oncoming sense of loss at the thought of leaving the cherished place behind someday: ‘For the first time it occurred to me that I should be homesick for that river after I left it.’ I understand that feeling; even in places that I know well and have returned to, I have felt a sort-of ‘homesickness’ for the way I have remembered them in my own mind, perhaps because of very small changes that have been made or things that aren’t on the face of it that important, but are significant details to me, not being there anymore and so altering the landscape completely.

Another layer of memory and experience comes into play through the appearance of a different generation; we not only feel what the long summer days are like for Jim and Antonia in Black Hawk, but also what they were like for Antonia’s late father through her memories of him ‘in the old country’ – Bohemia, their homeland before they migrated to America. I find it beautiful how Antonia’s memories of her father are brought about specifically by the elder flower that she sees and smells as it surrounds her, and that one specific thing can so vividly recall to life times that have long past, even reviving for a time those who are no longer living. The old and the new are united through recollection, as the other girls talk about their mothers and grandmothers; nothing is forgotten, aspects of time feeling like they are rushing back just as strong as the river that flows.

Isn’t it amazing how the boundaries of many years and generations can be crossed, all in the space of one afternoon?  I hope you enjoy our trip with Jim, Antonia and the others (elderflower cordial not required, but a wonderful accompaniment if you do have any to hand!), and maybe the sunshine will rekindle some nostalgia for you, too.

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