My Ántonia Didn’t Change, But I Sure Did
Deep in the pages of My Ántonia, I was shocked to find that the fortunes of the title character, an impoverished Bohemian girl, had changed since the last time I’d read the book over 20 years ago.
Fresh out of college, an ambitious, early-20s version of me got to the ending of Willa Cather’s novel of pioneer life and put down the book with a disappointed grunt.
A vivacious immigrant on the desolate Nebraska prairie, Ántonia’s zest for life and unfailing energy enchanted those around her. In her middle age, though, according to my memory of the end of the book, she was dejected, lonely, still mired in poverty, a broken-down failure who was losing her teeth. Unlike the other country girls she had grown up around who had gone on to success in business or adventure in the Yukon, Ántonia had stayed on the prairie, married a poor man, and pumped out a large batch of kids.
I remember being angry at the author for making me care about this woman only to give her such a depressing end.
But the thing is, this wasn’t how the book ended at all.
When the narrator visited Ántonia in her middle age, he found her happily married with a large family of loving, respectful children. Ántonia’s spark for life was completely intact. She was strong and in good health; although she had lost most of her teeth, it didn’t bother her.
The details of my memories of Ántonia’s miserable ending were nowhere to be found.
I discovered that while Ántonia hadn’t changed, I had. The just-out-of-college me had seen her modest existence on the farm as a sad ending for her, while the happily-married-with-two-great-kids me thought she turned out just fine.
This is part of a series, “Scene from a memoir I haven’t written yet.”