By Mary Eisenhart,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Writing shines in pioneer saga of friendship and struggle.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
History comes alive in My Antonia; far more than from most histories and memoirs, it conveys a strong sense of what life must have been like for people struggling to survive those first hard years on the Nebraska plains, and the various social accommodations as cities and towns evolved.
As a testament to enduring love and friendship, this book is one of the all-time greats. The friendship of Jim and Antonia survives many years and many differences, and one sees immediately why Jim finds Antonia so admirable.
Positive Role Models
There are no plaster saints in this book; everyone has falls from grace, and what distinguishes the remarkable characters like Antonia, and many secondary stalwart folks in this pioneer saga, is that they learn from their mistakes, make the best of it, and keep going. Other weaker characters (and outright villains) are not so fortunate.
Violence & Scariness
The suicide of an important character has a profound impact on Antonia's life early on. Later, there's a murder-suicide. Both these incidents are related from some distance. There's also an attempted rape, told with some immediacy because Jim is personally involved in forestalling the villain.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A fair amount of sex and its complications are entwined throughout the plot, but since the book was published in 1918, the level of decorum is pretty high. A child or two is born out of wedlock; any number of female characters may have been considered of "easy virtue" by the standards of the time, but author Cather seems to like them just fine and stand up for their moral substance.
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One section deals with a dance featuring a blind prodigy piano player born on a barely post-slavery Southern plantation. Given the era, Cather uses terms such as "mulatto," and other descriptions that sound patronizing to today's ear, though the musical triumph rises above such issues in the scene as a whole.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Drinking and smoking in the context of saloons and such.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that My Antonia, which is often on required-reading lists, could be either a big hit or a big turn-off with their kid depending on whether something about it engages them quickly. It has gorgeous writing and fabulous characters but not a fast-moving plot. If your ancestors came from the Midwest, or if you've got recent immigrant experience to talk about, that might be a good perspective from which to approach this book.
Where to Read
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What's the Story?
Ten-year-old Jim Burden, newly orphaned, is sent on a long train ride from Virginia to live on his grandparents' farm in Nebraska in the late 19th century. Also on the train, fresh off the boat from Bohemia in central Europe, is the Shimerda family, whose 14-year-old daughter Antonia and Jim are to be lifelong friends through many adventures and hardships that reflect both the best and worst of human nature and the growth of America.
Is It Any Good?
Though it's not an easy read for teen, adults often report that they appreciate this book more when they revisit it later in life. The great curmudgeon H.L. Mencken famously remarked, "No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as 'My Antonia,'" and there are plenty who agree with him. Many young readers, however, particularly those reading the book under duress as a school assignment, may not have attained the perspective to appreciate some of its finer points, from the complexity of its characters and their circumstances to the quality of the writing, which is far more rich and dense than today's typical fare. Those who persevere, however, will find much to reward them, and much that's surprisingly resonant with today's experiences. Parents may want to consider which aspects of the book might be most interesting to their own kids and use that as an entry point for discussion, should their kid be having trouble with the book in school.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about why Jim's and Antonia's lives were so different. Would anything have given Antonia a chance at a better life, and would she have liked it?
Even though they came from respectable families in the old country, the immigrants got no respect in the new. Are today's immigrants dealing with the same issues?
Is there anything you would have liked about living out on the plains before there were any modern conveniences?
- Author: Willa Cather
- Genre: Friendship
- Topics: History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Simon & Brown
- Publication date: November 30, 2011
- Number of pages: 154
- Last updated: June 24, 2015
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