Wednesday, September 05, 2012

My Antonia - The eNotated Edition

Willa Cather’s My Antonia is a classic, one of the “prairie tales” for which Cather is most famous.  The 1918 novel relies heavily on the author’s personal recollection of migrating to a remote section of Nebraska farmland as a small child to tell the story of Jim Burden, a little boy who made that very trek.  I decided to reread this one when I was offered a copy of Barbara Bedell’s new “eNotated” version by its publisher, Classics Unbound.

What makes this edition of My Antonia different from the usual run of the mill e-book versions already out there, are the dozens of links built into the text that define obscure words and references, many of which were probably more meaningful and familiar to Cather’s readers when her books were originally published than they are today.  There are also links to a bibliography, illustrations, photos, an author timeline, a brief history of Nebraska, and several theme explanations.  Much of this is meaningful and easy to digest (especially the definitions) within the context of the story, and I found some of the pictures included in the Nebraska history to be particularly fascinating.  Most of the material, however, is best explored after completing the novel if one is to feel the emotional impact of My Antonia.

Ten-year-old Jim Burden arrives at the remote farm of his grandparents not at all prepared for the isolation in which he will spend the formative years of his life.  Although he does not know it, a little girl, Antonia Shimerda, and her family share the last leg of the train ride with Jim and the young man accompanying him to Nebraska.  The Shimerdas and the Burdens will come to know each well as Antonia becomes a key figure in Jim’s life, always there but, somehow, still always out of his reach.
eNotator, Barbara Bedell

Just as surprising to me as the first time I read My Antonia, this is really Jim Burden’s story, not Antonia’s.  Antonia may be the title character but she disappears for much of the time, and the book is really more about how she impacts Jim’s coming-of-age experience than it is about what happens to her during her own rather harsh life. 

Cather excels in making her reader feel the isolation and danger faced by those who had the courage to brave an environment like the one in the Nebraska of the second half of the nineteenth century.  Those early settlers were lucky to survive, much less to thrive and improve their lot from season to season.  But they had the spirit and desire necessary to create a better life for themselves and their children.  Life on the Nebraska prairie was definitely hard, but it rewarded the hearty souls willing to test themselves there – if they managed to survive. 

Bottom line: My Antonia deserves its classic status, and it is as inspiring a piece of fiction today as when it was first published.  The eNotated edition is a worthy one that will be particularly helpful to students but interesting to more casual readers, as well.  I like the concept and look forward to other volumes from this publisher.

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