NOTE: IMPORTANCE OF THE INTRODUCTION
The Introduction is set apart by the use of
italic type. In it the author explains how this book supposedly came to be written by Jim Burden. In
reality, of course, Cather wrote both the Introduction and the novel, creating Jim Burden as a narrator.
The Introduction gives us important information about the novel, such as clues about Jim's adult life and
his feelings about Antonia.
It is the early part of the century, before airplanes, or even cars, are commonplace. Two people, a man
and a woman, who live in New York but grew up in Nebraska find themselves on a train together
crossing the country. They begin discussing memories of their hometown. It is summer and, as they sit
high up in the train's open observation car, the dust and the hot wind remind them of the prairie. They
describe its extreme climate and the beauty of its growing season.
This is your first taste of Cather's descriptive powers. Watch for literary
devices she will be using throughout the novel:
- exaggeration: "buried in wheat and corn"
- alliteration (repeated initial sounds): "heavy harvests"
- appeal to the senses: "the colour and smell of strong weeds"
- modifiers: "billowy," "blustery," "stripped," "stifled"
The travelers agree that people who come from that region have a special understanding with each
other. They call it "a kind of freemasonry," which means membership in a secret club or
lodge. (The Freemasons are a worldwide secret society that emphasizes charity and brotherhood.)
Jim Burden is a lawyer for a railway, and his work often brings him West. He knows his territory well
and has made the railway a great success. He and his wife seem to have little in common. Though she is
attractive, she is "incapable of enthusiasm." This is the opposite of "romantic" Jim
Burden (and of Antonia). Mrs. Burden is rich, has no children, and spends her time collecting young
artists as proteges. Or at least that's the way she seems from Cather's point of view.
The travelers refer to a Bohemian girl they had both known, Antonia. Jim has recently seen her again
after about twenty years. As they talk about her, they realize that she symbolizes for both of them their
childhood on the Midwestern prairie. Since seeing Antonia, Jim has been writing down his memories of
her. He has a lot of free time on his train trips, so he spends some of it writing.
Several months later, Cather tells us, Jim brings his manuscript to her in New York City. He explains
that because he simply wrote down everything he remembered, the account has no particular form. (This
is Cather's way of alerting you that you are about to read an unusual book.) Jim hasn't given it a title yet,
either. He writes "Antonia" on the portfolio containing his manuscript, but that doesn't seem
to be enough. After a moment he adds "My" before her name. The title My Antonia gives just
the flavor he's looking for, personal memory and its effect on his life.
BOOK I: THE SHIMERDAS
Book I also opens on a train. It is more than thirty years earlier, about 1882. Ten-year-old Jim
Burden's mother and father have both died in the past year. He is on his way from Virginia to Nebraska
to live with his grandparents. Jim is in the care of a slightly older boy, Jake Marpole. Jake has been his
father's farm hand and is now going to work for Jim's grandfather.
It's September. The trip takes several days, and the boys consider it an adventure. After Chicago they
meet a friendly off-duty conductor who tells them about all the places he's visited. The car ahead of theirs
on the train is an immigrant car in which families can sleep and cook as they travel toward their new
home. The conductor says that a European family, going to the same destination as the boys, has a pretty
daughter just four years older than Jim. (You will later learn that this is Antonia.)
NOTE: VERNACULAR SPEECH
The conductor describes the girl as "bright as a new
dollar." (Silver dollars were more common than paper ones in those days.) Cather was expert at
capturing the authentic sound of American speech. From the way he talks, can you form a picture of the
conductor? Here and elsewhere in My Antonia, colloquial expressions like this one reflect the characters'
It takes the train all day to cross Nebraska. That night, when Jim and Jake finally step onto the
platform in the town of Black Hawk, they get a glimpse of the immigrant family, and Jim hears a foreign
language for the first time in his life.
Jim and Jake are met by Otto Fuchs, who works for Jim's grandfather. On the train Jim has been
reading about the life of Jesse James, the famous Western outlaw. Otto looks to Jim like a character from
Otto leads them to a horse-drawn wagon. Jake rides on the seat with Otto, and Jim rides behind on a
bed of straw in the wagon-box, covered up with a buffalo skin. As Jim tries to peer out into the darkness
he can see very little, even after his eyes grow accustomed to the starlight. The land has none of the
features he was used to back home: houses, trees, roads. He can feel from the wagon ride that it is
slightly hilly, but the sky comes right down to the edges on all sides, instead of meeting mountain ranges,
as at home.
NOTE: THE LANDSCAPE
The new geography seems to match Jim's feelings about his new life.
He feels that "the world was left behind, that we... were outside man's jurisdiction." What do
you think he means by this? The life he has known is over, his parents are dead, he's left his familiar
home behind, and he is entering a new life without any rules. He even feels that the spirits of his dead
parents have been left behind in Virginia. Although he has no mental picture of his destination, he is
calm. The huge scale of the land makes his little life seem "erased, blotted out," as if the only
reality is the earth and sky, and the past and the future don't exist. Have you ever been in a landscape
that made you feel that way? Watch for the way the land develops from a setting into a major theme.
It takes almost all night for the work horses to go nearly twenty miles. Asleep, Jim is put to bed, and
wakes up the next afternoon. His grandmother is looking down at him. She's been watching him sleep,
and crying because he reminds her of Jim's dead father, her son. She is tall, with suntanned, wrinkled
skin, black hair, and a brisk, high voice with which she tries to hide her emotion.
Later, while she is getting supper ready, they talk about Jim's trip. She has learned that the foreign
family from his train is going to move onto a homestead several miles away- their nearest neighbors. The
family is from Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia).
The men- Jake, Otto and Grandfather- come in from working outdoors. They wash and sit down to
supper. Jim's grandfather is imposing. He has a bald head, a full white beard, and sparkling blue eyes.
Dignified and quiet, he inspires awe in Jim.
Otto, too, is impressive, but in quite a different way. Grandmother has already privately told Jim his
history: he came from Austria as a youngster and grew up quickly out West in the rough company of
miners and cowboys. A year ago poor health had made him come back temporarily to "milder
To Jim, Otto is a romantic, worldly figure. They eye each other with interest at supper, and make
friends immediately afterwards. Otto tells him there's a new pony for him in the barn. He tells about
having been a cowboy and a stagecoach driver. Once he was caught in a winter snowstorm, and his ear
was frozen off. He shows off his cowboy equipment including his special boots with pictures stitched on
them of roses and naked women- "angels," he tells the boy.
The entire household, including the hired men, go upstairs to the living room for family prayers
before bedtime. Grandfather reads from the Bible in a stirring and sacred voice.
NOTE: THE BIBLE
The Burdens, like many Christian families in the last century, pray together
morning and evening, go to church when there's a preacher in the neighborhood, and are thoroughly
familiar with the Bible. Jim doesn't understand some of the words his grandfather reads, but they seem
"oracular"- as if they have secret meaning for the future. Jim feels the promise of his new life
is symbolized by the psalm Grandfather reads: "The Lord shall choose our inheritance for
The next day Jim explores his new surroundings. The Burdens have a wooden house painted white.
Some houses on the prairie are built out of pieces of sod- bricks cut from the grassy topsoil and stacked
up, much as igloos are made from bricks of ice. Others, called dugouts, are tunneled out of a slope or the
bank of a creek or gully (small ravine). But the Burdens' farm is already well established. Grain is stored
in granaries and corncribs. A windmill pumps water from a well. There are barns, a chicken house made
of sod, pig-yards, a cattle corral, a patch of sorghum (a grain used to make animal feed and a syrup
similar to molasses), and the biggest cornfield Jim has ever seen.
Surrounding the farm is tall reddish grass rippling in the wind. Jim is fascinated by the "motion
in it; the whole country seems, somehow, to be running." This is the same theme Jim stated on his
first night in Nebraska: the vast, impersonal, free land makes a human seem small and unimportant by
Jim's grandmother is going to the garden a quarter mile away to dig some potatoes for the hired men's
dinner (the big noon meal is called dinner, and supper is the evening meal). Accompanying her, Jim is
enchanted by the countryside. He feels "as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and
underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping...." Other images of freedom occur to
him: the air seems light, as if the world ended nearby. He feels he could float off the edge of it, like one of
the hawks overhead.
He asks if he can stay alone for a while in the garden. He leans against a big yellow pumpkin (an
image he will remember thirty years later). While the gophers, grasshoppers and beetles go about their
business, he sits very still, a part of the landscape. He is having a strange experience- almost as if he is no
longer a human being, but an inanimate part of the universe. He thinks this blissful oneness with nature
may be how people feel after they die.
NOTE: THE GARDEN
Why is Jim's experience in the garden important? Like the biblical
Garden of Eden before man's expulsion, this one stands for goodness, innocence, and fruitfulness: some of
the pioneer values that are a theme in this novel, and are later symbolized by Antonia. Also, Jim feels a
harmony with nature in the warm autumn garden. The joy of being at one with nature was so significant
for Cather that Jim's words were carved on her tombstone: "...that is happiness; to be dissolved into
something complete and great."
Several days later the Burdens visit their new neighbors. They take them potatoes, pork, bread and
butter, and pies. The Shimerdas have bought their land from a distant relative, Peter Krajiek. They are
living with him on the prairie in his small dugout and barn until they can build their own house in the
spring. He has overcharged them for inferior land, worn-out work animals, and poor quality household
items. They speak no English, and Krajiek is the only one in the region who speaks Bohemian.
The Shimerdas' land is rough, with Squaw Creek cutting through the western half of it. It is scored
with eroded gullies where rain has carried the topsoil toward the creek. In one of the gullies is a shed and
next to it a window and door cut into the earth. Out of this crude house step the Shimerdas. The mother,
her head covered, European-fashion, with an embroidered shawl, has "shrewd little eyes." A
nineteen-year-old boy named Ambrosch has the same eyes, only more crafty and suspicious. Yulka is a
pretty little girl, and her older sister Antonia is fourteen and even prettier. The other boy, Marek, has birth
defects; he has webbed fingers and is mentally retarded. Instead of talking, he makes strange noises. The
father is a dignified, sad-looking old man. His thick grey hair is brushed back in an old-fashioned way
that reminds Jim of portraits of his ancestors. He is tall and thin with eyes deep-set in his pale face. He
was a skilled tapestry weaver and used to play the violin, and his shapely hands are white and calm.
NOTE: MR. SHIMERDA
As he takes Grandmother's hand, we notice the difference between the
two. Her sunburned, care-worn hands, described when Jim first meets her, are those of a hard-working
farm woman. Mr. Shimerda's hands are those of an artisan and a musician, unused to rough manual
labor. How do you think he will adjust to the drudgery the family must endure in order to make a living
on the wild prairie? Notice how the author has subtly introduced a comparison which will prove to be
crucial later on.
Jim's grandparents talk with the Shimerdas, with Krajiek as interpreter. The family has had nothing
to eat for three days except corncakes and molasses made from sorghum (a grain). Mrs. Shimerda touches
the bread eagerly, and even smells it, which seems odd to Jim.
Antonia takes Jim's hand and they run with Yulka up the hillside to the windy edge of the ravine,
overlooking the tops of the cottonwood trees. She wants to know Jim's name and the word for blue. Soon
they have sat down in the tall grass for what will turn out to be their first English lesson. She quickly
learns twenty words- a score- and is so excited she wants to give Jim her silver ring, which he will not
accept. If these people are so generous and trusting with strangers, he thinks, it's not surprising their
dishonest relative, Krajiek, "got the better of them."
NOTE: THE SHIMERDAS
Everything about the Shimerdas is strange and exciting to Jim.
Notice the similes (comparisons using "like" or "as") which Cather uses in this
vividly descriptive section of the book. Antonia has unusual eyes: "like the sun shining on brown
pools in the wood." The girls seem to have the quick, natural manner of wild animals: Yulka
"curled up like a baby rabbit," and Antonia "sprang up like a hare." The
Shimerdas' language sounds faster than English to Jim. Unlike his own grandparents, these people are
demonstrative: they express their emotions freely. Antonia and her father seem close, and Jim feels drawn
to both of them.
The first meeting between Jim and Antonia will set the tone for the rest of the book. Cather
emphasizes the differences in their personalities, using the following words to help bring out Antonia's
blazing quick extravagant
impulsive wonderfully mournful
wrung coaxed searchingly
violently insisted entreatingly
snuggled reckless earnestness
Jim learns to ride his new pony. Soon he is running errands, including riding six miles to the post
office. He roams over the prairie admiring the sunflowers along the dirt roads.
NOTE: SUNFLOWER LEGEND
You will see that Cather includes a number of stories and
legends she heard in her childhood. One is that the Mormons who traveled West to find religious freedom
scattered sunflower seeds behind them. Those who joined them the next summer had the sunflower trail
to follow. This legend may not be true, but it adds to Jim's feeling that these are "the roads to
To the east is the town of Black Hawk. To the south live some Germans who have a grove of catalpa
trees, unusual for that area. To the west is a Norwegian settlement. And to the north is a colony of prairie
dogs- burrowing rodents related to marmots and rats. The prairie-dog town has hundreds of holes leading
to tunnels. Earth-owls also make their nests in the holes with the prairie dogs, and Jim and Antonia like
to go and watch them entering their underground nests. Rattlesnakes are always around there because they
can prey on the owl eggs and prairie-dog puppies.
Antonia is rapidly learning English. She is quick-witted and opinionated. She helps Grandmother
Burden work in the house, and eagerly learns by watching. Housekeeping is not very easy for her own
mother in the dugout. The sourdough bread they eat seems disgusting to Jim's family. The Shimerdas
never go into Black Hawk, because Krajiek has convinced them they will be cheated there. (The truth is,
he knows if they go there they may find out they are being cheated by him.) They don't like him, but like
the prairie dogs, they can't get rid of the "rattlesnake."
Up north near the dog-town live two Russian bachelors named Peter and Pavel. When Mr. Shimerda
discovers that they can understand Bohemian, he visits them almost every evening. (We realize that he is
very lonely in this new country.) Antonia says it is the first time she's seen him laugh since they left home.
The two Russians have been lonely, too. Pavel is tall and gaunt, with a wild, excitable appearance. His
constant cough and thin body suggest that he may have tuberculosis. Peter is short and fat with white-
blond hair and beard. He has a wonderful sense of humor.
These two men live in a neat, log house. They have a cow and a garden filled with ripe vegetables.
Jim and Antonia visit Peter one late summer afternoon when Pavel is away working for someone. He cuts
watermelons for them to eat and consumes a huge quantity himself. Back home, he says, people eat
practically nothing but melons at this season. Obviously homesick, he hints that he left because of a 'great
He doesn't want the children to leave, so he entertains them by playing his brightly painted
harmonica. He finally sends them home with fresh cucumbers and a pail of milk.
Jim and Antonia spend the autumn afternoons outdoors together. Can you sense that autumn was
Cather's favorite time of year? The land is at its most beautiful and bountiful then. But this season of heat
and harvest will soon be over. Winter is coming. Antonia's dress is thin, and so they nestle against the
sun-warmed ground. In the pass they find one last insect, barely able to move. Antonia, or Tony as Jim
now calls her, cups it in her hand and speaks to it in Bohemian. The warmth of her hand and her breath
make it start to chirp a little song. This reminds her of Old Hata, a village beggar who would sing the old
traditional songs if you let her sit by the fire for a while. As she tells this, Antonia is homesick and there
are tears in her eyes.
They carefully set the delicate green bug in Tony's curly hair, covered lightly with her handkerchief.
Jim walks her part way home. The prairie is lighted with the reddish glow of sunset- like the Biblical
"bush that burned with fire and was not consumed."
They see Mr. Shimerda walking along dejectedly. As they run to him, Tony says she's worried
because he's sick and unhappy. They show him the green bug in her hair, and he shows them the three
rabbits he has shot. They'll eat the meat and then he will make Antonia a little fur hat. Mr. Shimerda
promises someday to give Jim his old-fashioned gun, a present from a nobleman at whose wedding he
had played the violin. As the sun sets they part and Jim runs homeward. You will see that vivid
descriptions of autumn sunsets will recur at three other significant points in the novel.
Several clues tell you something bad is going to happen. It's late in
the year, and also late in the day (both times of darkness and ending). Jim and Antonia see their black
shadows on the grass. Then they see her father, who has become a shadow of the man he was in Bohemia.
Why do you think he is "walking slowly, dragging his feet"? Antonia is the only person he
seems to care about, and he gives her "wintry flicker of a smile." When she tells him the story
of the last insect of autumn reminding her of Old Hata, why is he so moved? Is he thinking of the
homeland? Is he pleased at his daughter's kind-hearted imagination? Is he cheered by the insect's last
song in the face of death? What do you think is going through his mind?
In My Antonia, the weather reflects events and emotions. "As the sun sank there came a sudden
coolness and the strong smell of earth...." What does the smell of earth make you think of? Could
Cather be preparing you for a death? All these references to autumn's end foreshadow, or warn the reader
of, events in the future: the starvation and hardship the Shimerdas will encounter and the tragedy that
will befall Antonia's father when winter comes.
Antonia, being four years older, sometimes acts superior to Jim. This annoys him. One day they have
an adventure which tips the scales in his favor. They have gone on his pony to borrow a spade for her
brother Ambrosch from Russian Peter up near the prairie-dog town. On the way home Antonia wants to
dig with the spade to find out about the tunnels. They look into one and they can see it connects with
another tunnel. Jim is moving backwards to see it from a different angle when Tony screams something
in Bohemian. Turning around Jim sees a rattlesnake, thick as his leg and nearly six feet long. Any
rattlesnake is frightening, but this one is a "circus monstrosity." It doesn't occur to Jim to flee-
instead he runs up and hits the snake's head with the edge of the spade, just as it is about to strike. He
keeps hitting, and soon the head is flattened, though the muscular coils of the long body keep writhing
around his ankles.
Antonia is extremely impressed. They tie the snake to a piece of string (don't all boys happen to have
string in their pockets?) and drag it home. She praises him all the way, until he feels like a hero. Jim
knows quite a bit of folklore about rattlesnakes- that they have the same number of rattles as their age,
that they "spring their length," and that a dead snake's mate is likely to appear. He also
realizes later that although it was huge, this rattler was too old and fat to have given him much of a fight.
So "the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably was for many a dragon-slayer." Still,
he enjoys the praise of his family, Otto, the neighbors, and especially Antonia. In a way it is a rite of
passage, an event which shows that you have grown up. Can you identify with Jim's moment of triumph?
Have you experienced a similarly important event in your life?
The autumn brings bad luck for the two Russians. Peter owes money to the ruthless moneylender,
Wick Cutter, and can't pay it back on time, so he has to borrow more and mortgage his belongings. Pavel
is sick. He strained himself while helping to build a barn, and his lungs bled. Since then he's been ill in
One evening Pavel is very sick and wants to see Mr. Shimerda. Peter comes to get him, and Antonia
and Jim go along in the wagon. The wind builds up and starts moaning. Peter on the wagon seat is
groaning in Russian. The bright stars seem to Jim to have an "influence upon what is and what is
not to be." He's referring to the ancient superstitions of astrology, which he associates with exotic
places like Russia.
When they arrive, Pavel, too, is moaning. His body is wasted by disease, probably tuberculosis.
Outside, wind rattles the windows, and coyotes (related to wolves) are howling. You see how the stage is
set for something dramatic. Pavel, his mind raving, begins to talk hoarsely to Mr. Shimerda in Russian
about wolves. Antonia grips Jim's hand and listens in horror. It is a long story. Finally Pavel starts
coughing blood and can't talk anymore. Then he lies quietly, until he sleeps, and the Shimerdas go home.
On the way, Antonia tells Jim the story:
A friend of Peter's and Pavel's was getting married to a girl in the next village. Afterwards, the
drunken wedding party of seven sleighs came home at midnight across the snow. Suddenly they were
surrounded by a pack of hundreds of howling wolves. The last sleigh lost control and tipped over. The
starving wolves attacked it; the horses screamed even more terribly than the people. Panic-stricken, the
drivers of the other sleighs tried to go faster, but each was loaded with nearly a dozen wedding guests.
One by one the sleighs were wrecked and wolves devoured the passengers and horses. Peter and Pavel
were driving the first sleigh with the bride and groom. Theirs was the only one left. When one of their
horses started to tire, Pavel realized the only way to save themselves was to lighten the load by throwing
the bride and groom out, which he did after a struggle. They arrived safely in their own village, but they
were outcasts from then on. Wherever they went they had bad luck, even after they finally came to the
Jim and Antonia discuss this terrible story endlessly. Several days later, Pavel dies, and Peter sells off
his mortgaged possessions and leaves the area. Before he leaves, he eats all the melons he had stored for
the winter. Mr. Shimerda is heartbroken to lose his only two friends, and visits their empty cabin until the
winter snow prevents him from getting there.
Why do you think Cather includes the story of the wolves, so different in
tone and location from the material before and after it? Though it could be viewed as a digression, this
extended anecdote adds to the novel the flavor of European legends and of stories told out loud. In
addition to adding excitement, anecdotes like these may contain a broader message. Could Peter and
Pavel's sacrifice of the bride and groom to the wolves foreshadow the way men will treat Antonia? Later in
the novel you will learn that her father abandons her by committing suicide, her brother stands in the
way of her education by using her as a hired hand, and her fiance deserts her.
Another interpretation of this anecdote might be the contrast between the Old World and the New: in
Russia Peter and Pavel were ostracized for what they felt they had to do, but in America they had a chance
to start over.
This chapter is a good description of the Burdens' family life. In December, Jim takes Antonia and
Yulka for a ride in the sled Otto has made him. Happy to get out of doors, they go such a long way that
on the way home they get chilled. The next day Jim comes down with "an attack of quinsy" (a
severe sore throat) and has to stay inside for a couple weeks.
Jim spends his time in the comfortable house reading to Grandmother as she cooks or sews for the
hired men. Otto and Jake are simple, hardworking fellows. Jake is dull-witted and has a temper, but is
generous. Otto sings cowboy songs and tells stories of the strange characters he has known. One day he
tells about his trip to America. He'd been asked to take care of a pregnant woman with two children who
was going to her husband in Chicago. On the ship she had triplets. Since Otto was traveling with her, he
had to assume responsibility for the family as if he were the father. The first-class passengers took up a
collection for the mother, and kept asking Otto how she was. When the husband saw his huge family, he,
too, seemed to blame poor Otto. The image of Otto holding three babies makes Grandmother laugh until
she cries. This tale is another example of the extended anecdotes Cather inserts in her story. It seems to
illustrate Otto's failure to be recognized even when he does good, but to show that virtue is its own
One night the Burdens are discussing their neighbors the Shimerdas. Jake reports that Ambrosch shot
some prairie dogs and asked Jake whether they were good to eat. Is it possible the Shimerdas are
starving? Grandfather tells Grandmother she had better go and see the family the next day. They regard it
their Christian duty to love and help their neighbors.
NOTE: TWO FAMILIES
The last chapter described the comfortable, well-fed Burden family.
They are the perfect pioneers: industrious, resourceful, pious. In contrast, the Shimerdas' homelife seems
especially pathetic. They have no chicken coop and no root cellar in which to store vegetables. They are
living on rotten potatoes. The girls sleep in a small hole dug into the wall. The house is cramped, dark,
and smoky. Now that winter has set in, they face the depressing prospect of six hungry people confined to
the dugout day and night for several months.
The next day Grandmother packs a hamper full of food and they drive over to the Shimerdas. Jake
says he will bring the food in when he has put blankets on the horses to keep them warm. The minute
Jim and Grandmother go inside, Mrs. Shimerda begins to cry and complain about their terrible
conditions. She seems to be blaming Grandmother. When Jake finally brings in the basket of food, her
crying turns from accusation into bitter self-pity. Antonia, embarrassed and depressed, is not her usual
cheerful self. Her mother is sad, she says, and her father is ashamed of their circumstances. Mr. Shimerda
asks Antonia to tell Grandmother in English that "they were not beggars in the old country."
Obviously he is uncomfortable accepting her gift of food. Before the Burdens leave, Mrs. Shimerda
makes a point of giving them a handful of the most precious thing she has, some strong-smelling little
chips to cook with. When she gets home, Grandmother throws them away in the stove. She mistrusts the
foreign substance, which she associates with the Shimerdas' strange and dubious ways of doing things.
Years later Jim learns that the chips were dried mushrooms from the Bohemian forest.
Just before Christmas it snows so much that the Burdens can't go to Black Hawk to shop for the
holiday. They decide to celebrate Christmas simply, with homemade gifts and ornaments. Jake takes
presents on horseback to the Shimerdas, and returns with a Christmas tree he has cut by the creek. It is
Christmas Eve, and after supper Otto, Jake, Jim, and his grandparents decorate the tree with popcorn
strings, gingerbread, and candles. The finishing touch is a set of Nativity figures (representing the birth
of Jesus) which Otto brings out of his trunk.
Christmas is like Sunday. Grandfather is dressed up and holds longer morning prayers than usual
before breakfast. As he reads the Christmas story from the Bible, it seems fresh and meaningful, as though
it had just happened in their own neighborhood. Grandfather, who doesn't talk a lot at other times, often
shows his thoughts in his prayers. It's a quiet day. In the late afternoon, Mr. Shimerda arrives to thank
them for their gifts. He has never been to the Burdens' home before. It is obviously a great change from
the dugout, and, though he speaks little English, he feels completely content here.
Mr. Shimerda stays for dinner, eagerly drinking in the feeling of companionship around the table. He
seems to have a special fondness for Jim, and looks into his eyes "as if he were looking far ahead
into the future for me, down the road I would have to travel." Finally at nine, Mr. Shimerda sets off
on his long homeward walk.
After Christmas the weather turns warmer. During this thaw, Mrs. Shimerda and Antonia come over
to visit. Mrs. Shimerda jealously examines all the household objects. When she accusingly says that they
have no pots to cook in, Grandmother gives her one. After the noon dinner Mrs. Shimerda keeps
Jim's annoyance with Mrs. Shimerda carries over to Antonia. When she tells him her papa is
depressed by this country, Jim angrily says he should have stayed in his own. It turns out Mr. Shimerda
was not the one who wanted to come. Mrs. Shimerda pushed the family to come so that her older son,
Ambrosch, could get rich. It has broken Mr. Shimerda's heart to leave his dear friends with whom he used
to play music. But Mrs. Shimerda and her son "had everything their own way" in the family.
NOTE: MR. SHIMERDA AND MRS. SHIMERDA
In the last chapter we saw Mr. Shimerda as a
refined, intelligent man. Jim views him as a symbol of a cultured past and also of his own future, since
Mr. Shimerda seems to take a fatherly interest in him. The contrast in this chapter is startling: Mrs.
Shimerda is "a conceited, boastful old thing, and even misfortune could not humble her." Her
crude greediness triumphs over his quiet sensitivity. We feel that one person's good qualities are trampled
by another person's bad ones. This is something that Cather hated in her society. Where do we still see it
The weather is nice for several weeks, and then on January 20, Jim's eleventh birthday, it starts
snowing again. The blizzard is the worst the Burdens have seen in the decade they've lived on the prairie.
Mr. Shimerda kills himself with his old shotgun on the second day of the blizzard. Ambrosch
discovers his body in the barn, and comes to tell the Burdens. Otto and Jake visit the Shimerdas and
return before Jim wakes up. At breakfast they tell how, after his noon meal, the old man bathed and put on
clean clothes, went to the barn, lay down on a bunk, put the barrel of his gun in his mouth, and pulled the
trigger with his big toe.
Otto takes the best horse and rides nearly twenty miles to Black Hawk to get the coroner and the
priest. Jim's grandparents ride to the Shimerdas on a black workhorse, looking "very Biblical,"
Jim thinks. Alone in the house, Jim feels important. Always a lover of solitude, he sits quietly in the
kitchen and thinks about Mr. Shimerda's death. Since the man died of homesickness, Jim reasons, his soul
will try to return to Bohemia. But it's such a long way that perhaps it will stop to rest up for the journey in
this house, where it had found peace on Christmas Day.
Jim has a kind of mystical experience that afternoon. He feels a deep communication with Mr.
Shimerda's spirit. In contemplating all Antonia has ever told him about her father's life, "such vivid
pictures came to me that they might have been Mr. Shimerda's memories." He has the distinct
feeling that the old man's soul is there with him in the house.
Otto returns the next day from Black Hawk with a young Bohemian named Anton Jelinek who wants
to help the Shimerdas. Warm, friendly, and direct, he explains that for Catholics it is a grave sin to die
without a priest's blessing. The Shimerdas believe they will have to pray a long time before Mr.
Shimerda's soul can leave Purgatory.
NOTE: CATHOLICS AND PROTESTANTS
Jelinek's Catholic faith is strong. He tells the
Burdens a story about helping a priest carry the Holy Sacrament to soldiers dying of cholera in a military
camp. The blessed wafer, wine, and incense they carried protected them from getting sick, he asserts.
Grandfather, who rarely opens up to strangers, likes Jelinek's strong faith, but, as a Protestant, argues that
"Mr. Shimerda's soul I will come to its Creator as well off without a priest." What does young
Jim think of all this? You have seen from the boy's views on the vast land and his sense of communion
with Mr. Shimerda's soul that his religious feelings are personal and don't really have anything to do
with the church. Perhaps he is beginning to equate the divine spirit with the forces of the universe? At any
rate, he finds Catholicism just one more strange and intriguing aspect of his foreign neighbors. Like their
languages and their customs, religion sets the immigrants apart from the other settlers. This cultural
difference is a strong theme in My Antonia.
While Jelinek ploughs a road to the Shimerdas, Otto makes a coffin. Cheerfully he tells the story of
making a coffin in Colorado for an Italian miner who fell to his death. The pleasant sound and smell of
his carpentry seems wasted on dead people, thinks Jim. Visitors start arriving on their way to the
Shimerdas. They are a wondering where the dead man will be buried, since Black Hawk is too far in bad
weather. The Norwegians to the west don't want him in their cemetery. The suicide seems to have made
everybody more talkative and energetic than usual, a treat for Jim, who is the only child in a community
of usually reserved adults.
Grandfather has accompanied the coroner to the Shimerdas' and back. Though Mr. Shimerda
obviously killed himself, the case is mysterious because Krajiek's axe seems to fit a head wound on the
dead man, and Krajiek is acting guilty. This mystery is never resolved.
The neighbors are shocked to find out that Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch want to bury the old man on
their own land, at the southwest corner where two roads will eventually cross. A suicide, according to
Bohemian custom, must be buried at a crossroads. Grandfather decides that Mrs. Shimerda's wish must
be obeyed, but he also predicts that no roads will ever pass over the grave. (We'll later learn that he was
The funeral takes place on the fifth day after the suicide. Antonia is obviously heartbroken. The
Burdens and all the neighbors gather, and make a procession to the grave which Jelinek and Ambrosch
have chopped in the frozen ground. It is snowing as Grandfather makes a beautiful prayer. He asks
forgiveness for "the sleeper," and also mentions that if anyone has done wrong toward him,
"God would forgive him and soften his heart." Why do you think he says this? Could he be
referring to Krajiek? Grandfather thinks that Krajiek, although he did not directly kill Mr. Shimerda,
feels guilty knowing that his dirty dealings were as responsible for the death as any other factor.
Hopefully this tragedy will teach him a lesson.
Otto leads in singing a hymn that will always remind Jim in years afterward of the burial on that little
corner of snowy wasteland. And when the roads were surveyed, they never did pass over Mr. Shimerda's
head, but bent a little out of their way in respect for and kindness to the troubled pioneer.
Spring finally arrives. The new leaves and blossoms of a Virginia spring are not here, but to Jim the
warm, windy air seems to be "spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of
it." (Notice the personal effect the weather and the land have on Jim, as usual.)
He often goes to see the Shimerdas in the new log house the neighbors have helped them build. He
gives reading lessons to Yulka and visits Antonia in the fields. Grandmother thinks Tony ought to go to
school, Jim tells her. Tony boasts that school is all right for little boys, meaning Jim, but she's too busy
ploughing. This annoys Jim until he sees that she is crying.
NOTE: ANTONIA'S PROSPECTS
Turning her tearstained face from Jim, Antonia "looked
off at the red streak of dying light." You see that once again Cather uses description to communicate
emotion. Antonia's hope for the future, like the sunset, is a "dying light." Her well-educated
papa would have wanted his favorite child to go to school. instead, she has to do farm chores like a man.
Jim stays for supper. Now the Shimerdas' ways irritate him. Ambrosch grumbles and Antonia looks
like a sunburned peasant. Mrs. Shimerda thinks that people try to cheat her, and yet she cheats them. For
example, Mr. Burden sold her a cow for ten dollars down, plus fifteen to be paid later, but Mrs. Shimerda
tries to get out of the second payment by saying the cow doesn't give enough milk.
Jim goes to the one-room school without Antonia. He feels ignored by her, now that she's so busy. To
make matters worse, hot-headed Jake knocks Ambrosch down in a dispute over a borrowed harness. The
feud with the Shimerdas goes on until Grandfather resolves it by inviting Ambrosch to work for him in
the wheat and oats harvest in early July. He also hires Antonia to work in the kitchen.
Grandfather and Jim ride over to make arrangements with Ambrosch. Seeing them coming, Mrs.
Shimerda dashes off to try to hide the cow for which she owes Mr. Burden money. In the spirit of
generosity and reconciliation he tells her to keep the cow. Her defensiveness changes to gratitude; she
kneels and kisses his hand, as if he were a nobleman and she a poor peasant.
NOTE: CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS
Grandfather is extremely embarrassed by Mrs. Shimerda's
show of Old World respect. He disapproves of class distinctions, just as he would frown on slavery,
dishonesty, ungodliness, or prejudice. But he has such natural dignity that Mrs. Shimerda, who used to
steal firewood from a nobleman's forest in Bohemia, instinctively looks up to him. What do you think of
the attitudes of the other characters towards the foreign Shimerdas? Jake, who isn't very smart, thinks all
foreigners are peasants. Otto, from Austria, she carries his Old World prejudices against Bohemians.
What does Jim think? When he's angry with Antonia, he's tempted to believe Jake's and Otto's prejudices.
But usually he seems to agree with his grandparents that a person should be judged by his character
rather than nationality or social standing.
July is hot. While the men are reaping and threshing the wheat, the corn is growing by leaps and
bounds in the fields. Nebraska is perfect corn country, and Grandfather predicts rightly that it will soon
supply the world with corn, just as Russia at that time supplies it with wheat.
Antonia is a cheerful influence on the Burden household. Jim loves spending time with her. One
night they watch a dramatic thunderstorm together. She treats him like a friend and equal these days. He
asks her why she can't be gentle and natural like this more often, instead of copying Ambrosch's boastful
ways. Tony answers that she is happy here because life is easy in the Burden household, much easier
than life can ever be for the Shimerdas.
NOTE: JIM'S FIRST YEAR
By the end of Book 1, Jim has been living in Nebraska one full year:
he arrived in early September and now it is late summer. His bond with the land and the rhythm of its
seasons has been established for us in rich language. Note throughout this first book the descriptions of
the seasons as the year progresses. During this year Jim's bond with Antonia has also become strong.
Their childhood days on the farm will set the tone for their lifelong friendship.
THE STORY, continued
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