Allison's Book Bag

Two NE Young Adult Classics

Posted on: November 13, 2011

Although I moved to Nebraska over ten years ago, I have read very little of its fiction. When I enrolled in a course this fall on place-consciousness in writing, I decided to change this. At the top of my reading list I placed the state’s classics which, if I am to truly embrace our Midwestern culture, it seemed high time to read. While there were several I could have chosen, and hope to read at a later date, this time around I picked two novels set in frontier days by older writers: A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich and My Antonia by Willa Cather.

Both books are about strong women, frontier life, and the constant progression of time, but this is where the comparisons end. From the female perspective of Abbie Deal, Aldrich tells a tale of a couple who take on the challenge of homesteading in Nebraska. In contrast, through the male perspective of Jim Burden, Cather introduces readers to a plethora of immigrants, including the Shimerdas who are the first Bohemian family to settle in the Midwest. Abbie Deal maintains the family farm after her husband dies and even after her children grow up, while Jim Burden spends his teen years with his grandparents in the town of Black Hawk and later leaves to study law at Harvard University. Last, while A Lantern in Her Hand remains focused on its heroine Abbie, My Antonia is just as much about Antonia Shimerda, Lena Lingard, and a melting pot of other characters, as it is about Jim. As such, A Lantern in Her Hand is about how one woman struggled against and conquered a land while also raising a family; My Antonia is a colorful portrait of humankind.

A LANTERN IN HER HAND

 A Lantern in Her Hand is a remarkable feat. It is told from the viewpoint of Abbie Deal who through the course of the book matures from an eight-year-old whose family has recently migrated to Iowa into an “old lady who dies while the meat burned and the children played ‘Run, Sheep, Run”. Before you begrudge me for spoiling the end, let me reassure that this statement is actually found in Aldrich’s introduction. With that opening, who could resist turning the page? For the first few chapters, Aldrich recounts Midwest adventures akin to those in the Little House books: The family fords streams, settles the land, and avoids Indians. After the family builds their home, the children attend school, do chores, and play. While this is all interesting enough, I most enjoyed reading about Abbie’s creative pursuits. I also related to how she used every opportunity to dream of being a singer, painter, or writer. Then at the age of eighteen, Abbie faces a decision not uncommon at that time: Should she marry Ed Matthews, who wants to take her to New York for lessons, or Will Deal, who still toils the farm with his parents? Love wins out: Abbie and Will marry. Here’s where Abbie’s story really begins, for true to pioneer life the family meets very few people and face year after year of crop failure. Underlying A Lantern in Her Hand is a sadness about how time keeps rushing forward, forward, forward, and cannot be stopped. Yet always there is also Abbie Deal’s strength of character. Even as she relinquishes her dreams of fame, she continues to have a lantern in her hand and a song in her heart. Aldrich has written a beautiful fictional tribute to the memories of her mother and all the other settlers whom she interviewed about the forging of this state.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

MY ANTONIA

 My Antonia is a different breed. For one thing, the introduction of My Antonia is contrived. Two friends, one of them being Jim Burden, meet up while crossing Iowa by train. Their talk keeps returning to a central figure in their lives, a Bohemian girl named Antonia, and so they challenge each other to write down their memories. Months later, Jim Burden shows up at the apartment of the other friend with his version. For another thing, because My Antonia is often about everyone but Jim, in contrast to A Lantern in Her Hand where readers are immersed in Abbie’s emotional world, for awhile I wasn’t sure who I should care about. Moreover, in contrast to Aldrich’s purple prose which reminded me of my beloved regional author Lucy Maud Montgomery, Cather’s style initially felt like descriptive treatises. Eventually though, Cather reeled me in with her complex portrait of the folks of Black Hawk. Not only does each different culture have its share of drunks, partiers, rapists, murderers, and, oh, also good people, but their expertly intertwined. Aldrich is known for her wholesome fiction; Cather instead populates My Antonia with racier but also more realistic characters. These lines written by Jim about the weather accurately summarize the feel of My Antonia: “This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and the shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies. This is what was underneath. This is the truth.”

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Having now read Aldrich and Cather, I appreciate the talent of both of these Nebraskan women. Aldrich’s novels are comparable to “feel good” or “inspirational” movies, but this is not a bad thing. In talking about how she came to write A Lantern in Her Hand, Aldrich shares: “Other writers had depicted the Midwest’s early days, but so often they had pictured their women as gaunt, browbeaten creatures, despairing women whom life seemed to defeat. That was not my mother. Not with her courage, her humor, her nature that would cause her to say at the end of a long life: ‘We had the best time in the world.’ So my desire was first, to catch in the pages of a book the spirit of such a woman, and second, historical accuracy.” In Abbie Deal, Aldrich has created the epitome of a wife, mother, and woman. While Cather disliked the sentimental style of many female writers, chief among the subjects she wrote about were the people and experiences that she remembered from her years in Nebraska. In focusing on aspects other than traditional frontier life, Cather introduces readers to a different but just as real type of Western life. Both women have written fascinating books that deserve to forever remain part of our Midwest literature.

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