There was only –spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind–rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. — Willa Cather, My Ántonia, chapter XVII.
For the last few years, we have met to discuss a classic novel in January. Last year, we discussed Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) by Mark Twain—before that, Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen. This week, we discussed Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918).
We start our meetings a little early, giving us time to snack and mingle, but sometimes it’s hard not to talk about the book at hand. I had to explain the tomatillos sitting on the table because they reminded me of the ground cherries described in the book (only greener, and bigger, and more sour!). Rye bread and cheese with Harvest Song strawberry preserves seemed to fit, too; and ginger snaps substituted for ginger bread. Books like My Ántonia make book club food more fun and meaningful.
We decided to try a book circle before the meeting started, taking turns around the table to talk about other books we were reading or favorite ones we wanted to recommend. Cheryl had read Joanne Fluke’s Apple Turnover Murder and had made one of the book’s recipes, chocolate crack, to share. A delicious treat.
When I finally asked who would like to be our first responder, the room seemed surprisingly quiet. As if we had been holding our breath, I heard a quiet sigh of “I liked it.” Another member asked if we hadn’t read something like this previously, referring to the Nevada Reads selection of Twenty Miles from a Match by Sarah Olds, about homesteading in Northern Nevada. We also stumbled over how to pronounce Ántonia, finally deciding on the pronunciation of Ant(h)ony plus ah. Or just Tony.
The discussion proceeded slowly and in many directions. We discussed the beauty of Cather’s language and one member quoted the selection describing the wind as a playful pup. Another member had lived on the plains and found the sound of the wind whistling through the grass so remarkable that she had been surprised not to find it in the story. Why hadn’t Willa Cather been as acknowledged a talent as her friend Edith Wharton? Because she wrote about the poor. How could she have claimed not to be interested in feminism and write such a book about strong, independent women? Willa Cather had dressed as a boy in Nebraska and even gone by the name of William. What did that mean? One member mentioned that in her family, many years ago, a woman who was doing a man’s work could dress as a man. Who was the woman on the train in the introduction? Perhaps the reason the book lacked descriptions of sexual attraction was because Cather couldn’t describe it as the character of Jim.
One of us had the annotated version of My Ántonia and shared pictures from Willa Cather’s life and the inspirations for the story, including pictures of her grandparents and the “real” Ántonia. We discussed the inspiration for Peter’s tale about the wolves and the likelihood that wolves would take down an entire wedding party, even in the black forests of Germany. We talked, and thought, about hard work, survival, immigration, sex, and children. One of us shared that, years ago, while visiting family members with many children, she had been startled to be limited to two squares of toilet paper (four for solid waste!). Another member said that in some places (and times) you might be offered a page from a magazine. No one seemed to dislike the novel. The only question from the discussion question we addressed was about the novel’s epigraph, a quote from Virgil: “Optima dies… prima fugit: ‘The best days are the first to pass’.” Did this mean that the best days are first forgotten? Or that our first days, our childhood, are the best. Like time is relative?
So many things influence our reading and our understanding of our world. Like our discussions. They remain with us, perhaps not remembered but also not forgotten. Somehow a part of who we are and who we have, and will, become.
- Other Works Discussed:
- Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) by Willa Cather
- One of Ours (1922) by Willa Cather
- O Pioneers (1913) by Willa Cather
- Giant (1952) by Edna Ferber
- Little House on the Prairie Series (1932 – 1943) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- See Member Recommendations for books mentioned during the Book Circle Discussion