Posted by: christinelaennec | September 30, 2010

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

I have Emily Johnson, knitwear designer and literary blogger, to thank for directing me to this novel.   This summer I knit her beautiful Ántonia Shawl (Ántonia is pronounced AntonEEa), in its capelet form.  She was inspired by the American prairies and the pioneer women depicted in the novel, as well as by the Old World culture of the Bohemian family the Shimerdas.  I think the beautiful scalloped edge of the shawl is a perfect tribute to the elegance of Ántonia’s father, a Bohemian violinist whose dreams of finding a better life for himself and his family in 19th-century Nebraska are cruelly shattered.  It was a great pleasure to knit Emily’s design.  Here’s how my version of the shawl turned out:

Do I look like a pioneer woman? Or just the descendant of one? Ántonia capelet, summer 2010

When I made the Ántonia capelet, I hadn’t read the novel that inspired Emily’s design, and I decided I should.  This notion was in the back of my mind, and hadn’t quite taken form on my To Do List, when the Dafter and I visited a friend at the end of August.  And what was on this friend’s bookshelf, just about to leap out into my arms, but Willa Cather’s My Ántonia!  It struck me as quite a coincidence at the time – there aren’t that many bookshelves in Aberdeen that you would find this novel on!  (The friend is a Professor of English literature and used to teach Women’s Studies with me, so it isn’t a completely wild coincidence, but still.)

And I have so enjoyed this novel.  It’s beautifully crafted, taking you through a sweep not only of one man’s life but across years of great change in Nebraska.  I liked how the narrator, Jim, champions the “hired girls” – the daughters of the newly-arrived immigrants who are laundresses, seamstresses and domestic servants.  He finds them far more vital and interesting than what he calls the American girls, although by the end of the novel many of the hired girls are successfully assimilated into American culture.  Ántonia, however, keeps her first language.  She marries a fellow Bohemian and tells Jim that if she were to go back to her home village, her feet would remember every path and lane.  The relationship between Jim and Ántonia was very interesting to me – they have a deep friendship.  Jim (who leaves Nebraska to become an East Coast lawyer) travels to Prague so that he can see the Shimerda’s country.  He brings back photographs and presents for Ántonia and her family.

I was very interested to read about Nebraska, a place where a number of my Ripley relatives moved to from Illinois.  I know that my great-granny May’s younger brother and sister went to Nebraska in 1887 in a covered wagon (this information is from Fannie May Ripley’s obituary), and the novel gave me a much better idea of the life they might have lived there.

While Jim and Ántonia are the main human characters, perhaps in fact the central character is the prairie itself.  The image that remains with me is a sunset scene:

“Presently we saw a curious thing:  There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky.  Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun.  We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it.  In a moment we realized what it was.  On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field.  The sun was sinking just behind it.  Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share – black against the molten red.  There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.” (p. 245 in the 1980 Virago edition)

For me this is a good metaphor for what Willa Cather does in the novel:  she takes ordinary people and throws them into heroic relief.  You could say she shows that there really aren’t very many “ordinary” people at all.

So thank you Emily!

Emily’s book blog is “Evening All Afternoon”.



  1. Lovely capelet! I hadn’t seen that pattern before. Funnily enough I was reading about Willa Cather the other day in “Jury of her Peers” – about the contrast between her life and that of Edith Wharton. I will have to get myself to the library and read the novels themselves!

  2. Oh Christine, this shawl is so lovely and the colour just so you! You have made me want to read this novel, I shall have to find it and order it, it sounds divine and I can feel the sun of the pairie already.
    Hugs to you from Wales

  3. I just stumbled upon your post looking for Cather posts and I love your Antonia shawl! My favorite Cather book is My Mortal Enemy…I think Myra’s wardrobe could inspire a number of new creations!

    • Hello! I’m glad you like the shawl, it was a real treat to knit. I will definitely check out My Mortal Enemy for my next Cather read. I found your post on her writing style very interesting and I’ve left a comment there.

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