Frank Lavallo hosts two readers and the three of them summarize the world’s greatest works of classic literature, giving their reactions along the way. If SparkNotes had an audio best friend, it would be us!
Plot: "My Antonia" recounts the experiences of now middle aged Jim Burden and his childhood on the plains of Blackhawk, Nebraska. The Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian immigrants, moves in nearby, and their young daughter Antonia and Jim share many trials and tribulations in their childhood on the prairie. With her typical vivid imagery and beautiful depictions of the American landscape, Cather paints a powerful picture of life in the great plains in this classic novel.
Special thanks to our readers, Katie Porcile and Megan Canty, our
Producer and Sound Designer Noah Foutz, our Engineer Gray Sienna
Longfellow, and our executive producers Brigid Coyne and Joan Andrews.
Here's to hoping you find yourself in a novel conversation!
00:07Frank Hello, and welcome to
Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world's greatest stories. I'm
your host, Frank Lovallo, and for each episode of Novel Conversations, I
talk to two readers about one book, and together, we summarize the
story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what
happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you
love hearing a good story, you're in the right place. This episode's
conversation is about the novel, My Antonia, by Willa Cather. And I'm
joined by our Novel Conversations readers, Katie Smith and Megan Canty.
Megan, Katie, welcome. 00:39Katie Thank you. Thanks so much. Hi, Frank.
00:42Frank Glad to have you guys
both here. Before we get started on our conversation, let me just ask
you about the name of our title character. In my head, I've been reading
her as Antonia. A woman I know whose education and knowledge of
literature I respect learned from her professor, Antonia. Katie, what do
you hear when you say it, or how do you say it?
01:01Katie I've been reading it with a stress right at the front. Antonia.
01:04Frank Antonia. And then how about you, Megan?
01:06Megan similar to what your friend reported. I've always said Antonia.
01:10Frank Antonia. Okay, well,
with that out of the way, let me give you a quick summary of My Antonia
by Willa Cather. Originally published in 1918, it's the final novel in
her Prairie Trilogy, following O Pioneers and The Song of the Lark.
However, since the three books don't share any common characters or
setting, for me, the designation of a trilogy is a bit questionable, so I
don't feel like you have to read the other preceding volumes in order
to enjoy this book. My Antonia is set in and around the fictional town
of Blackhawk, Nebraska. The story is narrated by Jim Burden, now an
attorney, who recalls memories of his boyhood. In particular, his
friendship with a girl named Antonia Shemurda. So, Katie, how do we
first meet our narrator, Jim Burden?
01:51Katie As the story begins,
Jim has just lost his parents at the age of 10, and he moves from
Virginia to Blackhawk, Nebraska, to live with his grandparents on their
farm. He is traveling in the company of a farmhand named Jake Marpole,
who is slightly older, but who, like Jim, has limited experience of the
wider world. On the train out west, he encounters the Chimerida family
just arriving from Bohemia, who it turns out will be his new neighbors
02:19Frank Megan, and who are the Šmerdas?
02:21Megan The Šmerdas are a
proud and hardworking family from Bohemia, which is part of today's
Czech Republic. Among this Bohemian family, the only one who speaks any
English is Antonia. She's a young girl about Jim's age. There's also an
older son named Ambroš and a younger sister named Julka.
02:40Frank And once the train
reaches Blackhawk, Jim and Jake disembark, and one of the Burden's hired
men, an Otto Fuchs, meets them. Before departing for the Burden farm,
though, Jim observes the Shermirdas preparing to set off as well.
02:52Megan This is where we get
our first feel for the distinctive writing style of Willa Cather, as she
describes the emptiness of the Nebraska landscape at night using her
trademark short sentences and lack of emotion while describing a place.
03:06Frank Probably my favorite
part of her writing is her descriptions of landscapes and the vastness
of Nebraska and other places that she's written about. And as you said,
this landscape overwhelms Jim as he travels in the jolting wagon. And
then over the next couple of days, as Jim settles in, he explores his
new surroundings and the landscape around the farm, all magnificently
described, as I said, by Willa Cather. And Katie, how did a bird spend
their days and evenings?
03:33Katie While in the
evenings, Mrs. Burden prepares the evening meal while Jake talks about
Virginia and Otto tells stories of the ponies and the cattles to Jim.
03:43Megan And they always conclude their evening with some family prayers.
03:46Frank Jim does settle into this routine, Katie, but the routine changes on Jim's first Sunday in Blackhawk.
03:52Katie Yes, on Sunday, the
Burdens head out to greet their new Bohemian neighbors. Mrs. Burden
explains that someone took advantage of the Shmeridas when they decided
to move to Blackhawk by overcharging for a farmhouse not suited to the
harsh Nebraska winters. Mrs. Shmerida greets the Burdens upon arrival,
and Mrs. Burden presents her with some loaves of bread. They exchange
greetings, and the adults begin talking.
04:18Megan And at that point, Jim
and Antonia run off to play with her younger sister Yulka trailing
behind them, as younger sisters are wont to do. As they wander through
the grass, Jim actually teaches Antonia a few English words. And at the
conclusion of the evening, when the Burdens are preparing to depart, Mr.
Shemerida entreats Mrs. Burden to please teach English to Antonia.
04:42Katie He does. Jim starts to
take long pony rides around the landscape and he brings Antonia with
him. And that's when they really begin their first English lessons.
04:52Megan And Antonia loves to help Mrs. Burden around the house. And that's an opportunity that Jim takes to help continue her lessons.
05:00Frank And on one of these
rides, Antonia takes Jim to visit a pair of Russian immigrants whom her
family has befriended, Russian Pavel and Russian Peter. Katie, do you
want to tell me about Russian Pavel?
05:09Katie Sure. Russian Pavel is
a tall, gaunt, nervous man. He has been ostracized and forced to leave
his native Russia after a frightful incident involving a wolf attack on a
05:22Frank And Megan, Russian Peter?
05:24Megan Russian Peter is
Pavel's housemate. He's a fat, happy man, as he's described. Like Pavel,
Peter was also forced into exile from his native Russia following the
wolf attack on a wedding party. Peter eventually finds himself severely
in debt and sells off his belongings, leaving America for a job as a
cook in a Russian labor camp.
05:46Frank All right, ladies, who wants to tell me about the story of the wolves?
05:50Megan I would love to.
Antonia explains the story to Jim on their ride home. When Pavel and
Peter were living in Russia, they attended a winter wedding party
between a mutual friend and a girl from a neighboring town. On the ride
home from the wedding, a pack of wolves attacked the wedding party in
their sledges. Everyone perished, with the exception of Pavel and Peter,
who were driving the sledge that carried the newly married couple. In a
frantic effort to lighten the sledge's load and increase its speed so
they could escape, Pavel had thrown the newly married couple to the
wolves. The shame of this incident drove Pavel and Peter from their
hometown and later from Russia. The memory of the horror of that evening
plagues both Pavel and Peter. And the story of their background gives
us another view of immigrant life different from Antonia's family and
demonstrates a real fierce will to survive no matter what the
06:48Frank That was quite a story as written by Willa Cather.
06:51Katie I thought it was just so chaotic and there were, there were how many, like 11 coaches at first and some fell behind and then.
06:58Megan Oh yeah, that story
always stuck with me. I remember that being one of the first parts, the
first time I read the novel where like, where you see that. It's like,
you know, you see Antonia's family and everybody is, you know. pretty
positive and stuff, and then you see this very different perspective.
07:11Frank Well, and you also,
you know, when you think it can't be any worse than what the Samaritans
are going through, it is. There's another set of people, or family,
right, that went through even worse, right?
07:22Frank But on this visit to
the Russians, only Peter's at home, and he shows Antonia and Jim his
milking cow and feeds them a snack of melons. He then entertains them by
playing a number of tunes on his harmonica. As Antonia and Jim leave,
Peter presents Antonia with a sack of cucumbers for her mother, along
with a pail of milk to cook them in. As you can imagine, Nebraska has
plenty of its own wildlife. Maybe not wolves. Megan?
07:45Megan Yes, maybe not wolves,
but quite a lot of wildlife, and not all of it friendly. One day,
Antonia and Jim ride Jim's pony to Peter's house to borrow a spade for
Ambrose, her older brother. On the way home, they stop to examine a
group of prairie dog holes. But suddenly, Antonia spots an enormous
snake and lets out a scream, which causes the snake to react by coiling
in their direction. She points at the snake and shouts at Jim in her
native Bohemian. Jim turns around and sees the huge snake and swiftly
gathers his wits and uses the spade to bludgeon the snake several times
to kill it.
08:23Katie But Jim gets angry at
Antonia for not warning him in English about the presence of the snake,
but her admiration for his bravery quickly wins him over. They resolve
to bring the dead snake home to show off Jim's victory. The size of the
snake impressed everyone, including Jim's elders, and Antonia derives
great pleasure from relating the story to all interested listeners.
08:46Frank And Katie, it's about
this time in the story that Willa Cather gives us a bit of a
foreshadowing. At least that's how I read it.
08:52Katie On another one of
their rides in late fall, near sunset, Antonia and Jim encounter Mr.
Shemerida, who has recently caught three rabbits. His bounty will
provide food for the family and a winter hat for Antonia. Jim notes that
Mr. Shemerida seems sad, which leaves a deep impression on him. As
daylight wanes, the Shemeridas return to their farm and Jim races his
09:18Frank I think that's a great line. Jim races his shadow home.
09:20Katie Me too. I love that.
09:22Frank But with winter approaching, things are not going very well for the Russians.
09:26Katie Peter and Pavel have
fallen upon hard times. Peter finds himself deeply in debt to a Black
Hawk money lender named Wick Cutter, and Pavel seriously injures himself
in a fall. When Peter arrives at the Burdens to ask the Shmeridas, who
were visiting, for help, Jim decides to accompany Antonia and her father
to the Russians' farm.
09:47Megan When they arrive, it's
after nightfall, and they find Pavel lying incapacitated. Frantic
preoccupation with the wolves punctuates his illness. The memory of the
horror of that evening plagues both Pavel and Peter, and Pavel dies mere
days after Antonia and Jim's visit. And with Pavel gone, Peter sells
everything he owns and leaves America, and Mr. Shmerda thus quickly
loses two of the only friends he had made in the country. And we get a
window into just how harsh immigrant life on the prairie really was.
10:22Frank But Megan, it's not
just the harshness of life on the prairie. Once some of these immigrants
get to the prairie, there are men preying on them as well as some of
these wild animals that we've already mentioned, like wickcutter.
10:35Katie Peter didn't sell everything. He ate all his melons before he left.
10:39Frank That's right. That's
right. He sat down, surrounded by them, and ate every single one of
them. You're right, Katie. You know what? Let's stop here and take a
break. And when we come back, we'll talk about winter in Nebraska and
continue our conversation. We'll be right back. Welcome back. All right,
Megan, Katie, when we left, winter had come to Blackhawk, and with
changes in the weather would come changes for our characters.
11:10Katie It will. At the first
snowfall, Otto Fuchs builds a sleigh for Jim to drive. After a test run,
Jim sets out to give Antonia and Jolke a ride. The girls are unprepared
for the cold weather. I think they're both wearing cotton dresses, and
Jim gives them some of his clothing to help keep them warm. As a result,
he himself is vulnerable to the cold and ends up bedridden for two
weeks with Quincy, a severe tonsil disease.
11:35Megan Jim's next encounter
with Antonia occurs when Mrs. Burden decides to bring a gift to the
Shmeridas. She brings a rooster and foodstuffs. However, when Mrs.
Shmerida answers the Burden's call, we find her in tears.
11:50Frank That's right. The
Shmeridas have very little food stored up for the winter, and much of
what they do have is now rotting. When Jake brings in the gift basket of
food, Mrs. Shmerida only cries harder.
11:59Katie Mr. Shemerida
explains that they were not beggars in Bohemia, but that several
unexpected turns in America have left them with very little money.
12:08Frank And with winter, Christmas comes to the prairie.
12:11Katie During the week before
Christmas, with Jake preparing to go into town to do the Burden's
Christmas shopping, a heavy snow begins to fall. Mr. Burden decides that
the roads are unfit for travel, and the family sets about to instead
make homemade Christmas presents instead of going to town. Jim makes a
pair of picture books for Antonia and Jolke, and Mrs. Burden bakes
gingerbread cookies. After delivering an offering to the Shmeridas, Jake
brings back a small cedar tree, which the Burdens decorate for
12:41Frank But Megan, the winter doesn't only bring Christmas.
12:44Megan No, on the second
morning of the blizzard, Jim awakes to a great commotion. When he
arrives in the kitchen, he is told by his grandfather that Mr. Shmerida
has died. With Ambrose Shmerida curled up on a nearby bench, the Burdens
quietly discuss his apparent suicide while they eat breakfast.
13:01Katie And after the meal,
Otto sets out to summon the priest and the coroner from Blackhawk, and
the others clear the room for the trip to the Schmerida's. Jim stays
behind, and he finds himself alone. After completing the chores, he
settles down to contemplate Mr. Schmerida's death.
13:17Megan The next day, Otto
returns from Blackhawk with a young bohemian named Anton Jelinek. At
dinner, Jelinek bemoans the fact that they have been unable to find any
priest who is willing to put Mr. Shmerda to rest.
13:32Katie The postmaster alerts
the Burdens that none of the graveyards in the area will accept Mr.
Shmerda because he has killed himself. And Mrs. Burden lashes out in
bitterness at this unfairness. With no graveyard to turn to, the
Shmerdas decide that they will bury Mr. Shmerda in the corner of their
homestead. There's something important about it had to be at a
13:53Frank And so after lying dead in the barn for four days, Mr. Shmerda is finally buried on his own land.
13:59Katie Here's a quote from
the book. Grandfather asked Jelinek whether, in the old country, there
was some superstition to the effect that a suicide must be buried at the
crossroads. Jelinek said he didn't know. He seemed to remember hearing
there had once been such a custom in Bohemia. Mrs. Shemerida has made up
her mind, he added. I try to persuade her and say it looks bad for her
to all the neighbors, but she say so it must be.
14:23Frank Rural neighbors come
from miles around to attend the burial, and at Mrs. Shmurda's request,
Mr. Burden says a prayer in English for Mr. Shmurda, and afterward Otto
leads the assembled group in a hymn. And the spring will bring even more
14:36Megan It does. With the
coming of spring, the neighbors come together and help the Shmeridas
build a new log house on their property. And they eventually acquire a
new windmill as well as some livestock. So things are finally beginning
to improve for them. One day after giving English lessons to Yulka, Jim
asks Antonia if she'd like to attend the upcoming term at the
schoolhouse as well.
15:00Katie But Antonia refuses
proudly, saying that she is kept too busy by her farm work. But her
tears of sorrow reveal her true feelings on the matter.
15:09Megan And once school does start, Jim sees less and less of Antonia, and soon tension erupts between the families as well.
15:17Frank Yeah, there's some
dispute over a horse collar that Jim had loaned to Ambrose Schmierda,
and they end up fighting over it. And for the next few weeks, the
Schmierdas are proud and aloof whenever they meet the Burdens in
passing, although they maintain their respect for Mr. Burden.
15:32Katie And finally, Mr.
Burden arranges a reconciliation by hiring Ambrose to help him with his
wheat threshing and offering Antonia a job to help Mrs. Burden in the
kitchen. In addition, he forgives Mrs. Schmerida her debt on the milk
cow she bought from him. In an effort to show her own forgiveness, Mrs.
Schmerida knits Jake a pair of socks.
15:53Frank But even bigger changes are in store for both the Burdens and the Schmeridas. Megan?
15:58Megan Absolutely. Almost
three years after his move to Blackhawk, Jim and his grandparents decide
to leave their farm in the countryside for a house on the outskirts of
town. Finding himself out of work, Otto decides to head out west in
search of adventure, and Jake decides to go with him. Before leaving,
they help the Burdens move their household. But one Sunday morning, Otto
and Jake set off on a train and never see Jim again.
16:24Frank That was kind of a sad
moment in the story as I was reading it. I mean, they weren't best
friends, but they had come to respect each other, and Jim certainly
learned a lot from these two guys.
16:35Katie Yeah. And Jim begins
attending the school in town, and he quickly adjusts to the company of
his new classmates. Jim questions Ambrose for any news about Antonia
whenever Ambrose comes to town, but Ambrose is a little cagey with his
16:51Frank Well, Megan, what about Antonia?
16:53Megan Things are changing
for her as well. The Burdens' nearest neighbors are the Harlings, a
Norwegian family who also used to live on a farm. Three of the Harlings'
children are close to Jim's age, and their older sister Frances works
in Mr. Harlings' office. In August, the Harlings' cook leaves them, and
Mrs. Burden convinces them to hire Antonia in her place.
17:16Katie And with her warm
personality and easy way, Antonia is right at home among all the
Harlings, and she soon settles into a regular routine.
17:24Frank And once she's in a
routine, we quickly meet some new characters, Lena Lingard and the Vani
family. Megan, do you want to tell me about Lena Lingard?
17:33Megan Sure. Lena is a local
farm girl who has come to announce that she's also found work in town as
a dressmaker. She and Jim become friendly and over time close and then
17:46Frank And Katie, the Vanni family?
17:48Katie The Vonnies are an
Italian family who arrive in town with a dancing pavilion and begin
giving dancing lessons. The pavilion quickly becomes a center of town
life, especially on Saturday nights when the dancing carries on until
18:06Frank And it's with the
advent of this dancing hall and this dancing till midnight that we get a
discussion from Jim about the social mores in Black Hawk. Megan, you
want to tell us a little bit about what Jim thinks?
18:17Megan Yeah, and this is an
interesting part because we've been observing how the social structures
work, but no one's really come out and said it directly until Jim tells
us a little bit more about it in this section.
18:29Frank That's a good point.
18:30Megan Jim claims that all of
the socially respectable boys are secretly attracted to the country
girls who came to Black Hawk as hired girls. But because of the town's
extremely rigid social hierarchy, none of those town boys feels
comfortable actually dating one of these hired girls. For his part, Jim
finds the hired girls more interesting and worthwhile than the
townsfolk, and begins to spend time with them, receiving general
disapproval from the community.
19:00Frank And Megan, these troublesome girls, they include Lena and Antonia, don't they?
19:04Megan Yes, they do. Over
time, Antonia begins to be noticed more and more at the pavilion, and
thoughts of dancing soon start to preoccupy her waking hours. Trouble
starts after a boy who is engaged attempts to kiss Antonia on the
Harlings' back porch. Although Antonia manages to fight him off, Mr.
Harling presents her with an ultimatum. She has to quit dancing or she
had better look for work elsewhere.
19:33Katie The ever indignant
Antonia decides to take her chances on her own and announces her plan to
find work with Wick Cutter, the local money lender. Distraught, Mrs.
Harling tells Antonia that she cannot speak to her if she works for the
Cutters. Antonia insists on keeping her independence and she leaves the
19:53Frank And Jim describes the
Cutters as a detestable Blackhawk couple, generally loathed by the
populace. Wick Cutter is a devious moneylender who makes his money by
manipulating farmers like the Shmiritas and the Russians into accepting
unwise loans, and Mrs. Cutter is a hideous shrew. The Cutters do not
even get along with each other, and their epic arguments are legendary
throughout the town. Megan, how do things work out for Antonia?
20:17Megan Once she's set up at
the Cutters, Antonia spends even more time and energy on her new social
life. She begins to sew her own outfits and parades around town with
Lena and several of the other hired girls. Now a senior in high school,
Jim sometimes travels around with them. But when Jim's reputation is
brought into question, he's forced to look elsewhere for diversion. But
he quickly finds that very few diversions are to be found in Black Hawk.
There's not a lot of options.
20:47Katie And, eager to find an
alternative, Jim resolves to attend the Saturday night dances at the
Fireman's Hall, sneaking out of the house after his grandparents have
fallen asleep. One evening, after a night of dancing, Jim walks Antonia
back to the Cutters. When he asks for a kiss and goes a little farther
than Antonia expects, she scolds him for his brazenness. Jim, pleased at
her show of virtue, walks home with his heart full of her.
21:14Frank All right, a short
time later, though, Jim notices that his grandmother's been crying.
Apparently, she's learned of his secret journeys to the fireman's hall
dances, and she's ashamed of his deceitfulness. In an attempt to atone
for his actions, Jim swears off the dances, but he finds himself lonely
again as a result. Finally, at his high school commencement, Jim gives
an oration that the crowd receives wonderfully. Afterward, Antonia
breathlessly congratulates him and is moved to tears when he declares
that he dedicated the oration to her father.
21:43Megan And Jim is thrilled
with his success. I think that it opens up the idea that there are more
opportunities out in the world for him after feeling so stifled. And he
begins to think about life beyond the prairie. So during the summer, he
commits himself to a rigorous study schedule in preparation for his
upcoming university studies.
22:05Frank Books, books, and then more books. But what about Antonia?
22:09Katie Antonia continues to
work for the Cutters, and in late August, they leave town and leave her
alone to house-sit. When they're gone, Antonia has an uneasy feeling
about spending the nights by herself. Wick Cutter had put all of the
valuables under her bed and talked to her about it in a very weird way.
So Jim agrees to sleep there in her stead and comes back to the Burdens
each morning for breakfast.
22:35Megan But on his third night
in the home, he is wakened in the night by a noise. He quickly falls
back asleep, but a short while later, he wakes up to the noise of
someone in the same room as him. And he finds himself face-to-face with
Cutter, who was expecting to find Antonia in the room. It turned out
Cutter had used that trip as an elaborate scheme to abandon his wife and
planned to either seduce or rape Antonia.
23:02Frank A scuffle ensues, and
Jim manages to escape Cutter by leaping out of the window and running
through the dark town in his nightshirt. He eventually makes his way
home, only to find that he has suffered several severe bruises and some
23:14Katie Jim holes up in his
room to recover, and Mrs. Burden accompanies Antonia to the Cutters to
pack her trunk. They find the house in utter disarray, and, as they're
gathering up the torn garments, Mrs. Cutter arrives at the front door.
After doing her best to calm Mrs. Cutter down, Mrs. Burden listens in
amazement as Mrs. Cutter relates the elaborate ruse that her husband
concocted. He put her on the wrong train while he slipped back to
Blackhawk in his failed scheme to have his way with Antonia.
23:46Frank Let's take a break
here, and when we come back, we'll continue our story. Events start to
move a bit quicker in the following chapters. We'll be right back. And
we're back. All right, ladies, when we took our break, I said events
move a bit quickly in these next chapters. Jim goes to the university in
Lincoln, where he meets Gaston Cleric, a fellow student, and more
importantly to Jim, Lena Lingard pays him a visit. Megan, what is Lena
doing in Lincoln, Nebraska?
24:18Megan Lina is someone who's
always wanted a bigger life, a life beyond the simple prairie life that
she grew up with. And when Jim meets up with her, she tells him she's
set up in Lincoln as a dressmaker. And she describes all the details of
her business affairs and is obviously very excited at this new venture
in her life.
24:36Frank Well, Megan, I'm sure he asks her about Antonia.
24:39Megan He does, and Lena
explains that Antonia has begun working with Mrs. Gardner at the hotel
and is also engaged to a Larry Donovan.
24:50Frank Huh. Katie, how does Jim take that news?
24:52Katie Well, he greets this
news with a mixture of pleasure and dismay, and he mentions an urge to
go home and take care of her. But Lena changes the subject to the
theater, and Jim asks if she would like to get together for a theater
outing in the near future. Lena agrees to this proposal and departs as
quickly as she came in.
25:12Frank I'm sure she wanted to
change that subject. She leaves Jim among his books in the solitude of
his study, but they do start a relationship.
25:20Katie They do. Throughout
the spring, Jim and Lena attend a series of plays together. In addition
to spending time with Lena at the theater, Jim visits her regularly at
her dressmaking shop and takes Sunday breakfasts with her at her
apartment. And as the weeks wear on, Jim becomes less interested in his
classes and spends more and more time hanging out with Lena and her
25:42Frank But not really for long.
25:44Megan No. Near the end of
the academic turn, his friend Gaston Clarique informs him that he has
accepted an instructorship at Harvard College and actually wants Jim to
accompany him east. After receiving his grandfather's blessing, Jim
decides to leave Lincoln and visits Lena to tell her of his decision.
26:04Frank And Katie, how does Lena take that news?
26:07Katie Well, while she was
sad to hear the news, she makes no attempt to hold him back. When the
term ends, Jim returns home to be with his grandparents for a few weeks.
He then makes a visit to his relatives in Virginia before joining
Cleric in Boston.
26:21Frank And events continue to move along.
26:23Megan They do. Jim completes
his academic program at Harvard in just two years, and he then returns
to Blackhawk for a summer vacation before beginning law school.
26:34Frank And as readers, we
finally get caught up with Antonia. Her life has taken some turns as
well. Katie, will you start Antonia's story?
26:41Katie Sure. Jim knows that
Larry Donovan never married Antonia and that he left her with a child.
Jim thinks bitterly of Antonia's lot, lamenting her misfortune. He hates
to think that anyone sees her with an eye of pity. And now he learns
her full story. Megan?
26:59Megan Jim learns that Larry
Donovan took a job as a train conductor and moved to Denver. Antonia was
initially discouraged, but she quickly placed her doubts behind her.
When the time to depart came, Ambrose helped Antonia pack up and drove
her into Black Hawk to board the night train for Denver.
27:17Katie And after receiving a
couple of initial communications from Denver confirming Antonia's safe
arrival, the Shmeridas heard nothing from her for several weeks. Then,
suddenly, she reappeared at home one day, unmarried and devastated by
Donovan's desertion of her. Apparently, he ran off to Mexico to seek
27:37Frank In that winter, she
had a child, to the surprise of her family, who had not observed her
pregnancy because of the loose and bulky clothing that she had taken to
27:45Megan Antonia's baby is nearly two years old now and is very healthy and strong.
27:50Frank Well, do Jim and Antonia finally meet again?
27:53Katie They do. The next
afternoon, Jim walks over to the Shmeridas. After Yolka shows him
Antonia's baby, he walks out to the field to speak to Antonia. They
meet, clasp hands, and walk together to the site of Mr. Shmerida's
grave. Jim tells her his plan for law school and of his life in the
East. Antonia tells him of her resolution to bring her daughter up into
28:17Frank I think we all know how this is going to end, don't we, Megan?
28:21Megan At the edge of the
field, Antonia and Jim part ways, but Jim promises her that he will
return, and Antonia, in exchange, promises that she will remember him
always. And after this beautiful conversation that they have, Jim walks
back to his old farmhouse alone at dark and has the sense of two young
children running along beside him.
28:45Frank You know, another one
of those great Willa Cather lines, the way mentioned earlier that Jim
runs, tries to run with his shadow and now he feels that he's got these
two young children, clearly Jim and Antonia, running beside him. Guys, I
gotta admit, I thought he was gonna stay and I thought they were gonna
get married. But let's take a final break now and then head into our
last segment. We'll finish our story and then we can all share a moment
or a character or a quote that we haven't had a chance to talk about
yet. We'll be right back. Welcome back. All right, Katie, Megan, before
our break, Jim and Antonia had met, talked, and then frankly, to my
surprise at least, went their own ways. Now time really moves in these
29:32Katie It sure does. All of a
sudden, it's 20 years later, and Jim is a lawyer in New York, heading
home from a business trip out West. He decides to stop in Blackhawk to
see Antonia, of whom he has heard almost nothing in the intervening
period, except that she has married a fellow bohemian named Anton Cusack
and is raising a large family.
29:54Megan When Jim's buggy
arrives at the Cusack farm, Jim is led up to the house by two young
boys, and then he's welcomed into the kitchen by two older girls. As
he's preparing to sit down, Antonia enters the room, but initially she
fails to recognize him. When she does, though, she is overcome with a
rush of emotion and calls out to gather her children around her.
Introductions are made among everyone, and Antonia and Jim sit down in
the kitchen to discuss old times and new times.
30:27Frank Apparently Antonia's husband, Anton Kuzak, is away overnight shopping in town.
30:31Katie After spending the day
touring the farm and the orchards, Antonia invites Jim to stay the
night with them. Jim expresses his wish to sleep in the hamo with her
sons, and Antonia goes off to prepare supper while Jim heads out to milk
the cows with the boys.
30:47Frank And after supper,
there's a lot of talk and a lot of reminiscing, and then Antonia brings
out a box of photographs and tells stories until about 11 o'clock, when
Jim and the boys retire to the barn. The boys' giggles quickly give way
to slumber, but Jim lays awake late into the night thinking of Antonia.
31:03Megan And the next
afternoon, Kuzek returns with his oldest son and introduces him to Jim.
As Antonio serves a supper of geese and apples, the talk turns to
Blackhawk and eventually to the story of the violent murder-suicide
involving Wick Cutter and his wife.
31:19Katie After the meal, Cusack
and Jim take a walk into the orchard, and Cusack recounts for Jim the
details of his early life. Confessing a loneliness for his old haunt in
Bohemia and Vienna, Cusack explains that the warmth of Antonia's love
and the energy of his large family has kept him free from despair.
31:38Frank In the following day,
after dinner, Jim leaves the Cusacks. In Black Hawk, Jim is disappointed
by the unfamiliar town. It's really changed since he was there as a
boy. Toward evening, though, Jim walks out beyond the outskirts of town
and finds himself at home again. In his wanderings, he comes upon the
first bit of the old road that leads out to the country farms. Although
the track has largely been plowed under, Jim easily recognizes the way.
He sits down by the overgrowth and watches the haystacks glowing in the
evening sun. And so ends our novel, My Antonia by Willa Cather,
appropriately with a final beautiful description of the landscape as Jim
sees it that evening watching the haystacks. All right, Katie, Megan,
now I'd like to ask the two of you to share a moment or a character or
perhaps a quote that we haven't had a chance to talk about yet. Katie,
do you have something for us?
32:28Katie I do. We've touched on
Willa Cather's beautiful writing style already. And I think one thing
in particular that she does is she'll just, half a sentence will be just
this beautiful image wrapped up almost in a package for you. But one
thing thing that I thought about while reading this is the whole book is
about my Antonia, but we don't really get a lot of descriptions of her
and who she is as a person. But one of my favorite parts of the entire
book is describing her and comparing her to Mrs. Harling. So I wanted to
read that paragraph.
33:02Frank Please. Do you have those lines?
33:04Katie There was a basic
harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had strong, independent
natures, both of them. They knew what they liked and were not always
trying to imitate other people. They loved children and animals and
music and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare
rich, hearty food and to see people eat it, to make up soft white beds
and to see youngsters asleep in them. They ridiculed conceited people
and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep down in each of them,
there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish for life, not
over-delicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I
was distinctly conscious of it. I could not imagine Antonia's living for
a week in any other house in Blackhawk than the Harlings.
33:49Frank Those are some good lines. Thanks for sharing those. Megan, do you have something for us?
33:53Megan Yeah, the most
beautiful aspect of the novel to me or the most poignant aspect is the
fact that Jim so values clinging to his memories of childhood and to
those experiences. And he seems to have a fear of sullying those or
disturbing them with the reality of the present or of being an adult.
And I think that near the end, there's a beautiful passage where he
comes to understand the value of the present and that there isn't
anything lost by having relationships evolve and by evolving yourself.
He says, Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that
did not fade, that grew stronger with time. In my memory, there was a
succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's
first primer. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we
recognize by instinct as universal and true. She was a battered woman
now, not a lovely girl, but she still had that something which fires the
imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or a
gesture. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body that
had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
35:08Frank Some beautiful writing
by Willa Cather. I don't have any particular lines that I want to read.
I do want to piggyback on a couple of things, though, that Katie
mentioned. Again, I've mentioned it before. We've all mentioned it
before. The writing about the landscapes and the weather as it
approaches and comes through the prairie, just the way Willa writes
about the environment. and what people are seeing, I just find
fascinating. And I find that fascinating in all of her novels. I'm
particularly familiar with her book, Death Comes for the Archbishop,
written in the Southwest of our country. As a matter of fact, we
recorded that novel in season eight, Death Comes for the Archbishop by
Willa Cather. She has some amazing ways of describing the environment as
she sees it, whether it's the prairies of Nebraska or the deserts of
the Southwest, I just would recommend to all of you to just read some of
36:00Megan I think that there are
a lot of writers even today who may not even realize the influence that
she had on them. You know, she was really one of the first writers
where landscape or a particular place is almost another character in the
story with the importance that she attributes to it.
36:17Frank That's a great point. I
wish I had said it. She turns the landscape into one of her characters.
A great point. And then Katie, I also want to come back to you with, as
you said, we don't get a lot about Antonia herself, but throughout the
book, I came to really like and respect Jim Burden. And if Jim Burden
sees something in Antonia, he may not have to describe it to us, but
I'll take his word for it. I do trust Jim. I trust his visions. I trust
his thoughts. So, I see Antonia through his eyes. And for me, that was
sufficient in this novel.
36:55Katie I like the way you said that. Yeah.
36:57Frank All right, guys, with
those last comments, I'd like to end our conversation about My Antonia
by Willa Cather. Meg and Katie, I do want to thank both of you for
coming in and having this conversation with me today. I hope you enjoyed
it as much as I did.
37:09Megan Always, Frank. Yeah. A fantastic, fantastic conversation about a fantastic novel.
37:14Frank I hope to have a
conversation with both of you again very, very soon. I'm Frank Lovallo,
and you've been listening to Novel Conversations. Thanks for listening
to Novel Conversations. If you're enjoying the show, please give us a
five star review wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find us on
Instagram at Novel Conversations. Follow us to stay up to date on
upcoming episodes and in anything else we've got in the works. I want to
give special thanks to our readers today, Katie Portile and Megan
Canty. Our sound designer and producer is Noah Fouts, and Grace Sienna
Longfellow is our audio engineer. Our executive producers are Bridget
Coyne and Joan Andrews. I'm Frank Lovallo. Thank you for listening. I
hope you soon find yourself in a novel conversation all your own.