This is not a book review, nor are any of my posts. They are word reviews. I didn’t mean to sit down and read My Antonia. Ever. I lived in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota all at once in Sioux City for 8 months. It was gorgeous at times and other times I felt like the wind had taken my soul with it, up into the colder atmosphere where all the souls go that get swept up by arctic gales. But then I saw an old 80s version of the movie My Antonia and had to dig into the novel’s language. I’m so glad I did.
This duality of beauty mixed with nature as killer of humans and their spirits is perfectly distributed throughout My Antonia. Cather explores collectivistic culture against grassy and snowy fields that are sometimes hard to differentiate from the sky.
Here’s one passage where the narrator recounts the prairie. Throughout the novel he grows but in this particular instance he’s still around 11 or 12 and hasn’t experienced winter in the plains yet. He muses in chapter 6:
“Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. The wind that sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that hide one yard from another in summer, and the houses seem to draw closer together. The roofs, that looked so far away across the green tree-tops, now stare you in the face, and they are so much uglier than when their angles were softened by vines and shrubs.
In the morning, when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I couldn’t see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon…the town looked bleak…The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify — it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs, and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: ‘This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.’ It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.”
I know this is a lot to swallow, but I had to capture the whole passage. Cather uses a few adverbs and that elusive “seems,” but look at how she converts the song of the plains into punishment. Fighting, blue drifts, frivolities, mask of green. Also, that echoing of “loving” with “loveliness” as the last line you read reverberates back to the “ugly” truth, which is the opposite of that summer green that sheathed it for a season. The truth wins every winter.