American Masters -- PRAIRIE TO PARIS -- Exploring the Worlds of MY ANTONIA and THE SUN ALSO RISES
Prairie Paris About the Project
My Antonia book cover
MY ÀNTONIA, by Willa Cather, is a story about friendship, love, and immigration. In this early-20th-century novel, Cather provides a biographical narrative of Antonia Shimerda, a character based upon Annie Pavelka, a real-life childhood friend of Cather's. The story is "written" by Jim Burden, Antonia's childhood friend and neighbor, who is a successful lawyer in New York City. He tells of his childhood and the people who affected him the most.

Jim meets Antonia when he is 10 years old and a recent arrival in Nebraska from Virginia. Àntonia's family are Bohemian immigrants whose farm is near that of Jim's family. They are close to each other in age and their friendship develops naturally: Jim teaches Àntonia to speak English, and Antonia explores the surrounding countryside with Jim.

In the dead of winter, the unthinkable happens when Àntonia's father commits suicide. Consequently, the Shimerdas look to the Burdens for support, and tension grows between the two friends and their families.

As the novel progresses, we follow Àntonia and Jim to the nearby town of Black Hawk, where their friendship is reestablished. Àntonia gets her first job, and Jim completes high school and looks forward to a college education. Jim's departure to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln represents his ultimate separation from Àntonia. Their worlds begin to grow apart.

Jim jumps head first into his studies and pursues a relationship with Lena Lingard, a former childhood sweetheart and friend of both Jim and Àntonia. After spending two years at the university, he decides to finish his degree at Harvard, leaving Lena, Àntonia, and the past 10 years of his life behind.

While Jim is thus preoccupied, Àntonia becomes engaged to a selfish man who leaves her right before the wedding. She successfully hides her pregnancy from her family but garners harsh criticism when her daughter is born. Nevertheless, she chooses to keep and raise her child.

Decades pass before Àntonia and Jim are reunited. Jim, now a happily married and successful lawyer in New York City, travels to Nebraska to visit the girl who defined his youth. Àntonia, also now happily married, greets Jim warmly. Jim spends several days with Àntonia, Cuzak, and their children. The two friends pass the time the way they always did: happily. This time, however, the friends resolve not to let the years, or the distance, come between them again. Girl in field
Willa Cather bio

Read more about the life and work of Willa Cather.

Cast of Characters

Jim Burden
MY ÀNTONIA is "written" by Jim, a married lawyer living in New York City in the early 20th century who is recalling his childhood to a friend. The reader witnesses Jim's evolution from a young boy on the Nebraska prairies to a thoughtful, intelligent man who goes to Harvard. Though the novel is called MY ÀNTONIA, it is also very much about her friend, Jim.

Àntonia Shimerda
Àntonia is the title character of MY ÀNTONIA. In the novel, she transforms from a 10 year old girl who can't speak English into a wise and hard-working woman. Àntonia's character is marked by the resilience and independence that see her through difficult times. Her friendship with Jim sometimes seems tenuous. Nevertheless, they affect each other's lives profoundly.

Lena Lingard
MY ÀNTONIA is a celebration of strong women, and Lena is no exception. Lena befriends Àntonia in the town of Black Hawk, where Lena has her first of two romances with Jim Burden. Like Àntonia, Lena is fiercely independent. She displays this by opening her own dressmaking shop and refusing to marry any of her gentlemen callers.

Larry Donovan
As a young adult, Àntonia Shimerda is engaged to Larry, a selfish man who abandons his pregnant fiancÉ the night before their wedding ceremony is to take place. Àntonia raises her daughter alone, despite harsh criticism from her family. She eventually marries Cuzak, a fellow Bohemian immigrant with whom she raises a large family in the country.

PRAIRIE TO PARIS American Masters