Willa Cather, My Antonia (Review of eNotated edition)
I am a Willa Cather fan, and have read some of her novels and short stories, so was intrigued when eNotated Classics offered me an eNotated version of Cather’s My Ántonia for review. eNotated? That sounded like something worth exploring so, although I’ve read the novel before, I decided to read it again. I wasn’t sorry. It’s still a wonderful read.
My aim here is not so much to review the book, though I won’t be able to resist saying a little, but to explore this eNotated edition that I read on my Kindle. I understand from the website that eNotated Classics produces books for the Kindle, the Nook and iBooks. The company’s aim is to take “advantage of eBook technology to extend and enrich books in a way that increases understanding, engagement and reading pleasure”. Did they achieve this aim for me? That is the question!
I’d say yes and no – and will explain by discussing what I see as the three main components of the eNotated version.
These are underlined text (words or phrases) that you click for added information, which can be dictionary-style definitions, brief encyclopaedic-like descriptions, or interpretations. The eNotations can also be read as a group by clicking a single link at the beginning and end of each chapter, and they appear at the end of the book. In fact, the novel finished at the 77% mark in the book, with the last 23% comprising the eNotations and other material.
I was disappointed that many of the eNotation links contained the same information that the Kindle dictionary contains. Since the latter is faster to access by simply moving the cursor to the word to be looked up, those eNotations were rather superfluous. However, perhaps this depends on the dictionary the e-reader accesses, making the experience different with different e-readers.
There were a few of the more interpretive style and I appreciated those. One concerned the relevance of the play Camille which the narrator Jim sees with Lena. This sort of notation can be useful to students who may not, for example, know the play.
A useful feature is their identification system, which comprises a bracketed number at the end of each paragraph and each eNotation, making them easy to cite and to find. The number is obvious as you read, but you soon get used to it.
Now this one bothered me somewhat. See what you think: here are the first lines of the novel as they are presented in this eNotated version:
Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa (TIME) in a season of intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James Quayle Burden – Jim Burden as we still call him in the West.
Throughout the novel sentences or phrases are treated like this – formatted in italics followed by (TIME), (NARRATOR) or (ELEGIAC). The “How to read this book” section at the beginning of the book explains that these italicised passages are cited in the relevant theme essay – Time, Narrator or elegiac – at the end. These are not really “themes” in the literary analysis sense: “Time” is a theme but “Narrator” relates to voice, and “Elegiac” relates to tone. I did find these a little intrusive and wonder whether they would have been better handled as links to the essay they occur in without the bracketed upper case word to show the way.
At the end of the book are several items designed to add value. Most of these are not unique to e-Books. They are the eNotations (which you can click on to go back to the text), the three theme essays, a History of Nebraska, a Willa Cather Timeline, a Key Event Timeline, a Bibliography and Images. These are all useful value-adds. I liked the fact that the 12 images can be enlarged, something I can’t do with maps and images in the travel guide I bought last year. It was fascinating to see an image of a Dugout house in Nebraska, though photo credits next to the captions would have been good.
I’m not a Cather expert, but I found the Theme essays interesting – and expect they’d help both students and general readers. The bibliography is short and looks useful, though the most recent citation is dated 1987 which seems a little old. The novel might be a classic, but scholarship continues …
And now to the book itself
How do I love this book? Let me count the ways! I love its meditation on the past, on how the past intrudes into the present. Jim Burden is, really, “burdened” by his past. He meets Antonia when he is a 10-year-old orphan arriving in Nebraska to live with his grandparents, and she a 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant arriving with her family to settle there. They end up on neighbouring farms and become friends when her father asks Jim to teach Antonia how to speak English. The novel then follows the next 30 or so years of their lives – the first four “books” cover 10 years from the novel’s opening, while the last “book” jumps to 20 years later. Jim, the narrator, keeps an eye on what happens to “my” Antonia over the years, but the book is as much about him and his inability to move on from the past. He says near the end:
In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.
Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.
Lovely, simple, spare writing.
And I love Cather’s description of pioneer life, and pioneer characters. Much of what she writes could easily apply to 19th century Australia. The landscape is different – but is similarly bare and harsh – and the ethic mix is different – but the experiences and hardship are universal. It’s a life and environment in which character is writ large – and Cather draws her characters beautifully. Even the minor ones – such as farm hands Jake and Otto who disappear early in the novel – are vivid. Here is Jim on Ántonia, late in the novel:
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.
This is one of those novels that stays with you and I’d recommend it to anyone. Would I recommend this eNotated edition? Yes. It’s a good attempt to take advantage of the eBook format and, while there are features that didn’t work perfectly for me, at USD5.99, it’s hard to beat.
The eNotated My Ántonia
eNotated by Barbara Bedell
eNotated Classics, V1.00 12/1/2011 (based on 1918 edition)
(Review copy supplied by eNotatedClassics.com)