What I’m Reading: My Antonià by Willa Cather

my-antoniaOh Electricity, you are wonderful. We never know how great the light is until we’re forced to live in the dark.

Last night, due to what would otherwise have been an interminable blackout, I read by candlelight, Abraham Lincoln style. The book was, fittingly, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I don’t think I would ever had read the book or any Cather at all, had it not been for this article, which took me back to my university days when reading these types of things were not only required but thankfully, highly enjoyable. See, I’ve always interested in the lives of writers and artists, and often read their profiles or biographies first before determining whether I’d like to venture into their actual art. The lives that beget the art after all are, for the most part, art or THE art itself. That is where the color, the words, that’s where it all springs from! The life! The life! You paint, you write what you know! There is no mistaking that Cather, who moved from Virginia to Nebraska at the age of nine in the late 1800’s, knew those prairies and those people.

Anyway, I am in awe of her pen and her simple direct style. I began the book in the light of my grandfather’s living room and later, hunched in my car waiting for my father to come home and open the door with an ancient front door key, and still later, when it seemed there could be nothing else to do in a house without electricity and about a dozen or so tea lights, I fell into the Nebraskan planes Cather so beautifully laid out before me – the candlelight flickered off the dogeared pages of my library book, making the words dance, and perhaps any other book at any other time would have made me nauseous but it seemed so fitting to read Cather by candlelight.

She is up there with my McEwan and my Martel, my James and Melville. (Oddly, the first excerpt also sums up my feelings about the blackout. There is nothing as unsettling yet as final as coming home to a pitch black block, early on a December evening).   

 I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down, I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land – slightly undulating, I knew, because our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven., all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not wither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be. 

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 foods and to see people eat it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters alseep 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 of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I was distinctly conscious of it.

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