My Ántonia opens with a short frame story: the author (presumably Willa Cather) relates a chance meeting with an old acquaintance, Jim Burden, on a train ride through Iowa. The time appears to be roughly contemporary with the publication of the novel (1918). The two adults reminisce about their shared Nebraska childhood, where they first met, and they mention a woman named Ántonia. They challenge each other to write an account of their relationship with Ántonia, and only Jim appears to follow through, composing a lengthy manuscript and bringing it to her a few months later. The author says that this manuscript became the text of My Ántonia.
Cather chooses this character of Jim Burden as the narrator for two obvious reasons. It allows her to manipulate or mediate the perspective that she uses to write about Ántonia (as a romantic interest, as an exceptionally strange woman, among many other perspectives), and it displaces some of the credit/blame for the story to someone else without moving too far away from her (someone from her hometown in Nebraska, who understands life in a small prairie town).
A frame story is a narrative within which a character proceeds to tell a story.
Book I: The Shimerdas
Parts I – IV
The book opens with Jim Burden, the narrator, being taken west from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents after his parents’ deaths. Jake Marpole, a farm hand who worked for Jim’s parents, accompanies him. Jake is a young man at the time, and Jim is ten years old. They take a train across the country, and they hear about an immigrant family traveling on the same train going to the same place, Black Hawk, Nebraska. Jake buys and gives Jim a copy of The Life of Jesse James, a book he treasures for many years.
When they arrive at Black Hawk, Jake and Jim see the immigrant family (the Shimerdas), and hear the family talking in a foreign language. They are greeted by Otto Fuchs, a German immigrant and employee of Jim’s grandparents. Jim compares Fuchs to a character from the Jesse James book—he is visibly tanned and scarred, and dressed like a cowboy—and Fuchs leads them to a wagon to take them to the Burdens’ farm. Jim notices the immigrant family again, getting into the only other wagon present. Fuchs drives them over the Nebraska land, and Jim thinks to himself about how empty and featureless the land is compared to Virginia. He realizes he has left his parents behind, and he feels intimidated and insignificant under the vast sky and wide, flat land.
Jim falls asleep in the wagon and wakes up in his grandparents’ house. He sees his grandmother when he opens his eyes, and she immediately compares him to her dead son—Jim’s father—and invites him into the kitchen. Jim makes his way out of bed and down to the basement kitchen, and he seems impressed by the order and cleanliness of the arrangement. He takes a bath in the tin washtub in the kitchen while his grandmother is in the attached dining room, refusing her help with cleaning himself. Jim notices the details of the kitchen, acquaints himself with the pets of the house, and muses for a little while on his impressions of his grandparents. Otto Fuchs introduces him to one of the horses, and Jim, Otto, and Jake are called upstairs for prayers. The next day, Jim goes outside and starts to get to know the town. His grandparents apparently live in the only wooden house in the entire town; the neighbors live in sod houses. Most of the area around the house, at least the part not covered with corn, is covered with wild red grass.
As Jim is musing on the red grass, his grandmother invites him to accompany her to the garden to dig up some potatoes. She tells him that he should never go to the garden without some kind of weapon to protect him from rattlesnakes. After digging some potatoes, Jim asks if he can stay in the garden without his grandmother. She agrees, but she gives him some information about all of the various animals that he might see. He spends a good portion of the day in the garden, and he enjoys the feeling that he has become part of the land.
A few days later, Jim accompanies Otto Fuchs on a trip to visit the new Bohemian family in the town with a gift of some provisions. Jim finds out that the Bohemian family, the Shimerdas, bought a piece of land not far from his grandparents, and that they had paid too much for it. They had been swindled by Peter Krajiek, a Bohemian man who was already living there. No one in the family spoke enough English to survive without Krajiek, so he also functioned as their interpreter. Fuchs suggests that he might have helped them with Krajiek, except that he doesn’t think the Shimerdas will trust an Austrian. When asked to explain, Fuchs says that it’s “politics,” and that it would take too long, but that Bohemians don’t trust Austrians.
As the Grandmother, Fuchs, and Jim make their way to the Shimerdas’ farm, they notice Squaw Creek, a narrow stream that runs through a deep ravine through the Shimerdas’ land. The ravine makes farming that piece of land difficult and reduces its value. They come upon the Shimerdas’ house, a dugout built against the edge of the ravine. Mrs. Shimerda comes out of the house to meet them, and shakes Grandmother’s hand. She speaks a little English about the house, saying that it is no good. Ántonia and Yulka, the two daughters, come out of the house and meet the visitors, as does Ambrosch, the oldest son. Ántonia, Jim notices, is brown-skinned and brown-eyed, and quite beautiful. She is about fourteen years old, a few years older than Jim. While the two families are talking, Krajiek and Marek, the second son who shows off a webbed finger and acts a bit strangely, approach from the barn. At some point, Mr. Shimerda emerges, and Jim is greatly impressed by his appearance and his demeanor. Mr. Shimerda doesn’t seem to belong on a farm; he seems too aristocratic for farm labor.
Ántonia and Yulka drag Jim away from his family and bring him over to the edge of the ravine. Ántonia starts quizzing him on the English names for things, including his own. Jim teaches her several English words, and she tries to repay him with a gift of a ring. After a little while, Mr. Shimerda comes looking for the girls, and they run to meet him. Mr. Shimerda confronts Jim with a silent, questioning look. Then he returns to the house, takes out a book with Bohemian and English alphabets, and asks Grandmother to teach Ántonia English.
Jim learns to ride one of his grandparents’ horses, and he becomes the messenger for the family. As the messenger, with the freedom of travel that he has with the horse, he becomes a sightseer, traveling about the area to admire the landscapes. He also instructs Ántonia in English every day. She runs across the prairie between them, and Jim shares some of the watermelon from the farm with her. Jim also notices the ways that the rattlesnakes take advantage of the prairie dogs in the area, and compares Krajiek to a rattlesnake in a prairie dog town. The Shimerdas don’t know how to get rid of their only English-speaking Bohemian companion.
Analysis, Parts I-IV
Cather sets the Shimerda family up in a way that seems to promise catastrophe. In her description of Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch, she suggests that they are self-interested and cunning. Mr. Shimerda appears to be set up to be a victim of tragedy, as a kind of great man set up to suffer through inappropriate or unsuitable challenges. He is a musician but there is no one who will listen to him. The family also appears to be facing a difficult struggle, with a poor house and a poor plot of land to farm, and only a cheating Krajiek to help them succeed as farmers. Jim’s family appears as welcome charity to the Shimerdas, but Jim’s family has no solution for the bulk of the Shimerdas’ problems.