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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
After four days, Mr. Shimerda is laid into the ground. Jelinek and Ambrosch have to work at the grave all day long to dig the hole in the frozen ground. All the neighbors come despite the weather. Jim catches a glimpse of the body before it is buried. The only identifiable part is the hand which looks as it always did. After everyone in the family prays over the body, Mrs. Shimerda tells young Julka to touch the body and bless it. She is terrified to do so and Mrs. Shimerda attempts to force her to touch the body. Mrs. Burden stops her and tells her she will not stand by and watch her frighten the child into doing something she doesnít even understand.
Someone asks Mr. Burden to speak over the grave. Jim remembers the prayer vividly. He says only God can judge anyone and that if anyone present has been remiss toward a stranger to their country, God will forgive him and soften his heart. Then he asks God to help the widow and her family. Jim notices that his grandmother looks satisfied with her husband and what he has said. She asks Otto to sing a song so it wonít seem so "heathenish."
The graveside service for Mr. Shimerda and the significance his gravesite carries for Jim Burden afterwards are important scenes in the overall mood of the novel. The burial brings all the neighbors together despite all their religious and cultural differences. Grandfather speaks over the body with a sense of the justness of the world for helping the grieving family and bringing anyone guilty of hurting Mr. Shimerda to contrition.
The gravesite turns out to be a place which evokes the past most strongly in Jim Burden. After all the red grass of the prairie has been obliterated by farming, it is the only space where the grass remains standing. It turns into a sort of island preserving the past for memory. The nostalgic tone, strong throughout Part I, reaches its climax here.
Jim experiences the spring with euphoria. Although it is a different spring than those of Virginia, Jim feels that if he were suddenly dropped blindfolded onto a Nebraska prairie in the spring, he would know it was spring. The earth seems to throb with new life. Another strong sensation of spring is the smell of burning fields. The settlers are burning their fields to clear the old grass and make way for the new grass. The Shimerdas live in their log house now and are equipped to begin farming in earnest.
One afternoon in April, Jim visits Julka to give her an English lesson. Antonia can no longer take English lessons from him since she is busy working in the fields. When he gets to the kitchen, he notices that Mrs. Shimerda asks him questions about his grandfatherís farm as if he will divulge secrets that his grandfather will not. When Antonia comes in from the field, he is astonished at how much she has grown in the past eight months. She has just turned fifteen. She is darkly tanned from working so hard in the fields all day every day. Jim thinks, Antonia has a "draught-horse neck" common "among the peasant women of all old countries." Antonia tells him how much she has been managing to plow in a day. Jim tells her about his grandmotherís suggestion that she go to town and take school lessons in two weeks. Antonia tells him she has no time to learn since she works like a man now. She says school is fine for little boys, but she has to help make the farm a good one. Jim wonders if Antonia is going to become as boastful as her mother, but then he notices that as she turns away from him, she is crying. After a moment, she takes his hand and asks him earnestly if someday he will tell her some of the nice things he learns in school. She adds that her father was a very learned man who read so much that priests liked to visit him to talk to him.
At dinner, Jim notices how Antonia has no table manners. She keeps stretching her arms since they ache from a long dayís work and she gobbles up her food. She and Ambrosch argue in their language. Then Ambrosch says in English that she doesnít know how hard it is to break up sod. She agrees and tells him she will milk the cow for him the next day. This makes Mrs. Shimerda bring up the subject of the money she owes Mr. Burden for their cow. She says the cow gives little milk and is not worth the money she still owes Mr. Burden. Jim is indignant. Ambrosch complains that Mr. Burden accused him of breaking his saw when they were building their house. Jim knows that Ambrosch broke the saw and then hid it and lied about it. Jim wishes he had not stayed for supper. He notices Antoniaís poor table manners and remembers his grandmother saying that heavy fieldwork would spoil Antonia. He thinks it already has.
As he rides home, he thinks of how little he sees of Antonia now. If he comes to her house, he only sees her in the fields. She stops for a moment to talk to him and then urges the team to go forward again as if she were grown up and had no time to talk to him. On Sundays she works with her mother all day. Mr. Burden is the only one who is pleased with Antonia. He says she will make a good wife for some man some day. Jim thinks Antonia is too proud of her strength. He has notices that Ambrosch has given her some chores girls shouldnít do. He has heard the farm hands in the country talking about her in nasty ways. He thinks sadly of how Mr. Shimerda would put so much feeling into his voice when he said, "My Antonia."
Chapter 17 announces the spring of the novel. The descriptions of the thrill of spring after a hard Nebraska winter are some of the best writing in the book. Jimís sense of being at one with the land on his first morning in Nebraska when he sat leaning against a melon in his grandmotherís garden has grown even deeper. The sense of place that Cather creates in the distinction between the Virginia spring which is announced by flowering trees and the Nebraska spring which is sensed more than seen in the red prairie.
Jimís conservatism is demonstrated in his attitude toward Antonia and the Shimerdas throughout the novel. In the earlier chapters, he gets the idea that immigrants like the Shimerdas are ignoble and lack the simple foresight of his own ancestors, without realizing that his own ancestors had more experience colonizing land as well as the power of language. In this chapter, he is dismayed to find Antonia crossing the gender boundary between what is considered masculine and what is considered feminine. Antonia is working in the fields alongside her brother and is proud of her strength and of the significant contribution she makes to the familyís comfort and stability. She clearly remembers the deprivations of winter and has determined to work hard to avoid repeating that experience. Perhaps Jim is especially bothered by Antoniaís strength and ability with outdoor work because, though there is only four years difference between them, he doesnít participate in the hard work of farm life yet. Jimís conservative response to Antonia is echoed by the community. The men make nasty jokes about her, a means of social control, a technique for bringing Antonia into the norm of American femininity.