My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is a novel of family devotion. It takes place in the small western town of Black Hawk, Nebraska. The main character of the story, ‘Antonia Shimerda, is thrust as a young girl from her own native country into the American prairies. While still a child, she must deal with the death of her father. He felt that he couldn’t deal with the strains of his new life and support his family so he commited suicide. She is forced to do the work of a man and turns from a gentle young lady into a man, in some ways.
The elements of fun in her childhood were few and far in between. Antonia’s life is full of disappointment and she is forced to grow up much too quickly. The road she takes is full of ditches and bends but it clears and straightens in the end. As soon as her father is buried, ‘Antonia realizes that she now has a heavy burden on her shoulders. Since she is one of the eldest in the family, she must now work to put food on their table. Her mother is a complainer and can’t speak English, her oldest brother, Ambrosch, is strong, mean and not well liked, the second oldest brother, Marek, is mentally and physically disabled and her sister, Yulka, is still a youngster.
With the help of their neighbors, the Burdens, ‘Antonia is able to establish a meager living for her family. She does this by working on her farm as well as the other farms in the area. While this work is very beneficial for the family, ‘Antonia is turned into a rough and wild creature. When she is old enough, ‘Antonia leaves the prairies and goes in to town to find work. She becomes what we would call today, a live-in housekeeper. She works hard and sends all of her wages home to help her mother and siblings on the farm.
The hours were long and the breaks few so when she did get to go out, ‘Antonia and her friends create quite a reputation for themselves. She somehow gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and slowly begins to lose the honor and respect she worked so hard to gain. ‘Antonia leaves to marry a ” no-good ” and comes home alone, sorrowful and dejected. Her fiance had told her that they had been married but then ran off without her. ‘Antonia later gives birth to a girl, the illegitimate child of this supposed marrige. She takes great pride in her daughter but with her birth, she loses whatever respect she had left.
Years later, ‘Antonia is found in Hastings, Nebraska, married with eleven children. Her dream has come true, to have land of her own and many delightful little children running wild all over the place. She works hard and is weary but has been repaid as her wish has been fullfilled. She has her land, her family, her garden and she still has the fire of life within her. ‘Antonia’s life was a difficult one. The burdens that she had to carry were not meant for her shoulders. All through her life’s difficulties she remained devoted to whatever family she had. Thoughts of her family always came before thoughts of herself.