The Prairie – From Ántonia’s Eyes
Pioneers who came to the prairie feared it as much as the wildfires, hurricanes, or the plagues that tormented their homelands. Tales and lore tell of them losing their dogs, their belongings, and even their children in the tall grasses. They lost loved ones in the icy winds that cut through the Great Plains and livestock to the deep snow. Some, however, lost their fear of the new landscape and stayed, creating the first of a long line of prairie people.
Many authors attempted to tell the story of the immigrants who forged the prairie, but few completed the task as well as Willa Cather, Sherry DeBoer, director of the South Dakota Humanities Council, said. Cather’s book, My Ántonia, was written in 1918 – not too many years from the actual struggles of immigrants who came here to start their new lives in America.
Distinguished Professor of English at South Dakota State University, Dr. Mary Ryder, said the book is very relevant to our Dakota prairie heritage. “My Ántonia offers a glimpse of the immigrant experience that was so important to the development of the Great Plains region,” she said, “and, simultaneously, celebrates the determination and strength of character that allowed the small beginnings of human settlement to succeed in a difficult environment.”
Descriptive passages about the prairie in My Ántonia will resonate with those born and raised in a land where the earth and sky are equals. Dr. Ryder cites passages in the book that “show us the beauty and power of the untouched natural prairie.”
Dr. Ryder quoted Jim Burden, the book’s narrator. “I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.”
Those who leave the prairie often carry strong images of the land with them to their new homes. My Ántonia is full of those memorable pictures. “One has become the representative symbol for all of Cather’s prairie novels, a kind of hieroglyph—the plow inscribed within the sun disk,” Dr. Ryder said. “Cather writes: ‘On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it… There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.’
“The contrast of the littleness of the human endeavor against the vast power of nature is striking; still, the plough symbolizes achievement, productivity, and civilization’s advancement—all issues addressed in My Antonia,” Dr. Ryder said.
First published in 2007 issue of South Dakota Conservation Digest