Books become favorites for a myriad number of reasons: different tastes, life experiences and moods. So I'll preface my recommendation by saying I think that this book and author are my favorite because Willa Cather writes about the lives of pioneering plains people. Her stories take place in wide open spaces; they are honest, unvarnished tales of those people: their celebrations and losses, and the friendships that span those events. The backdrop to this story is an agricultural one. The underlying themes of planting, harvesting and honest labor – the kind that leaves dirt under your fingernails and guarantees restful sleep – feels familiar to me.
The book is My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I loved it the first time I read it, about 15 years ago. And then read everything else written by her that I could find a copy of. I think it's the parallels between my upbringing and the backdrop to this story that make it feel like home. I grew up in the flat land of southern Illinois in a community of farming and mining families who were richer in friendship and life experiences than in material things.
The whole book is amazing. But the last two chapters get me every time. The thing that resonates most is the strength of character of Antonia and that she creates an indelible impression on, and bond with the people who have the opportunity to know her. I'm in love with the idea that the passage of time and loss of people doesn't necessarily diminish their presence in your life.
Below is my favorite excerpt from the book; it is a description of Antonia as told by her childhood friend – reacquainted after twenty years absence.
“She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”
- -Willa Cather, My Antonia