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Free Study Guide-My Antonia by Willa Cather-Free Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS

CHAPTER 1

Summary

Jim Burden first heard of Antonia when he was on a very long train ride out west to Nebraska. He was ten years old and was being sent out west to his grandparents by his Virginia relatives after his parents had died. He was brought out by Jake Marpole, a man who has been hired by his grandparents. As he rides the train, he reads a novel about the life of Jesse James. The train conductor befriends them and tells them of a family on the immigrant car who will be settling in Black Hawk, Nebraska, the same place where Jim will be living. The train conductor encourages Jim to go over and meet the girl, but he is shy about it. Jake approves of his decision, saying that he should watch out because he could get a disease from foreigners.

Jim doesnít think much of Nebraska. It is a long train ride through the state and he only notices its vastness. When they arrive at Black Hawk, it is dark. He feels "surrounded by utter darkness." He canít see any lights anywhere. As they debark from the train, he notices the immigrant family. A man comes to them and speaks in a foreign language. Jim is interested to hear it since it is the first time he has heard a foreign language. Then Otto Fuchs, Jimís grandparentís hired man, comes to pick them up. Jim thinks Otto looks just like a character from his Jesse James book. They put Jim in the back of the wagon and head off for the farm. Jim sleeps under a buffalo hide, but the ride is too rough for comfort. He peeps out from the hide to see the land. He finds nothing to see. He thinks it is nothing but the material from which to make a country. He feels as if they have left the world behind. When he looks up at the sky, he realizes he doesnít believe his father and mother are watching over him here, but must be back in Virginia looking for him. The wagon goes on and Jim experiences a strange feeling, not of sadness, but of nothingness. He thinks that if they kept on going forever, he wouldnít mind. That night, he doesnít say his prayers. He feels as if here in Nebraska, "what would be would be."


Notes

Chapter 1 describes Jimís first encounter with Antonia simultaneously with his first encounter with the west. He is full of romantic thoughts from the very beginning. First, we see the source of his romanticism in Jesse James novel he reads on the train ride out west. He doesnít look at the land heís crossing, but instead reads the novel. When he sees Otto Fuchs, he places him in the world of the Jesse James novel: "He might have stepped out of the pages of ĎJesse James.í" Next, he thinks of the west as a "new world," not one that had been inhabited for centuries before Europeans came to it. For him, even as a ten-year-old, the west is a place to "try our fortunes." It is a sort of testing ground to see whether one is strong or not.

At the same time he is experiencing the west through the filter of romanticism, he encounters the Shimerdas. He is told that Antonia is the only one of her family who speaks English and that she is going to the same place he is. When he is shy to meet her, his decision is approved by Jake, who tells him foreigners give a person diseases. Notice, by the way, that the Shimerdas ride on a separate "immigrant car." The Shimerdas come across with all the prejudices about immigrants. They are crowded onto one car, they are powerless in the realm of language, they are mysterious in their difference, and they are feared.

Jimís first encounter with the land of the west is also colored by his Eurocentric notions. He thinks of it as a realm of nothingness. It is utter darkness, it is "nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." Jim experiences the accompanying dislocation of identity in the encounter with what is so different to him. Without his usual landmarks, he feels alone, rootless, and disconnected, as if he would go on and on and never reach a destination. He doesnít think his dead parents are watching over him here and he doesnít say his prayers. It is in these two elements--the perception of the land as empty, ready to be colonized, and the threatened identity of the colonizer--that we can see the impulse to colonize. The settler asserts his identity by changing the land he encounters, appropriating it for his own fantasies of what land is for, fantasies which place him back in control.

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