"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 ...His mind was full of her that day. He made me see her again, feel her presence, revived all my old affection for her".
These words, from the Introduction to this fine novel, are spoken by the (un-named) narrator, who then disappears from the scene, leaving the rest of the story to be told by his friend, the lawyer Jim Burden. Jim, orphaned at ten years old, is sent by train from his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on a farm in the wilds of Nebraska. Also on the train is an immigrant Bohemian (i.e. Czech) family, the Shimerdas, who are about to start a new life in the same locality. Jim soon makes friends with their beautiful, wild, strong-willed fourteen year old daughter Antonia, and the two become inseparable. A few years later Jim's grandparents move to town, and Jim, whose feelings for Antonia are powerful, is happy when she too moves, to work as a "hired girl" for a local family. Jim is growing up and is greatly attracted to Antonia and her friends, going to local dances and engaging in mild flirtations. He loses sight of her during his university years, though sometimes hears news of her from her friend Lena Lingard, now a successful dressmaker, with whom he has an affair. Later he learns that Antonia has left home to get married but been jilted and has returned home pregnant. He visits her and finds her strong as ever, loving her new baby. Many years pass until he meets her again, now married to a farmer and the mother of eleven children. It is clear that she is happy -- Jim sees her as “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races” -- but also that the bond between her and Jim is undiminished.
This bald account of the story of the novel will not really give you any idea of how great it is. Because it is structured as Jim's reminiscences, it is not a particularly well-shaped story -- no twists or major surprises here. But it is absolutely enthralling for so many reasons. It is a wonderful picture of life as it was lived by those brave late-nineteenth-century immigrants, arriving with little money and struggling to survive the harsh conditions on the prairie; a fine bildungsroman, showing Jim maturing from a young, uncertain boy, through adolescence and into adulthood; and an extraordinarily strong characterisation of Antonia herself, who seems to stand for that enduring spirit of the early pioneers, rising from poverty and privation to become the founders of the best of the American spirit. Cather writes beautifully and I enjoyed this so much that I was really sorry to get to the end of the novel. If I had the strength and energy to put together a list of 100 must-be-read books, this would definitely be on it.