Teenaged girl shouldn't have come here: Willa Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska in 1883. She made the move with her parents. She was 9 years old.
In her highly autobiographical novel, My Antonia, Cather transforms herself into Jim Burden, her novel's (male) narrator. He meets, and forms a lifelong attachment, to a Bohemian immigrant, Antonia Shimerda.
Some fundamental human stories tend not to change over time. The book appeared in 1928, telling a story which begins in the 1880s.
When Jim is 10 and Antonia is 14 when the following exchange occurs. As we start, Antonia is describing her father's unhappiness during her family's first year in this new, strange, difficult land:
‘My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never make music any more. At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like this, but never he make the music. He don’t like this kawntree.’Did we mention the fact that Jim is 10 at this point in the story? By the time he's 20, Antonia is delivering one of the book's most memorable lines, summarizing the somewhat mysterious connection between herself and her native-born friend:
‘People who don’t like this country ought to stay at home,’ I said severely. ‘We don’t make them come here.’
‘He not want to come, never!’ she burst out. ‘My mamenka make him come. All the time she say: “America big country; much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.” My papa, he cry for leave his old friends what make music with him. He love very much the man what play the long horn like this’—she indicated a slide trombone. “They go to school together and are friends from boys. But my mama, she want Ambrosch for be rich, with many cattle.”’
‘Your mama,’ I said angrily, ‘wants other people’s things.’
"Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?"
As we reread the book last week, we were barely a week removed from Mister Trump's dimwitted suggestion that AOC and the rest of "the squad" should go back to the countries they came from.
Mister Trump's dimwitted statement was made in the year 2019. Jim, aged 10, was expressing a somewhat similar thought back in the 1880s.
The Nebraska of the 1880s was largely settled by immigrant families. In Cather's rendition, these largely European families were often viewed with a rather familiar type of disdain by their native-born neighbors.
We'll review Cather's account of this matter tomorrow. Her account will possibly sound familiar, especially to those of us who believe every word we hear on MSNBC, but one large irony will obtain:
The people being disregarded will be among the "whitest" people found anywhere on the earth. The "Danish girls" are so disregarded, and Cather convincingly describes their pink-cheeked beauty, along with their endless good cheer.
We humans may tend to demonize others quite freely. Such others don't have to be "brown."
Tomorrow: "I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid..."