Narrated by Jim Burden, the novel is his coming-of-age story when he moved from Virginia to live with his grandparents on a Nebraskan farm, after the death of his parents. The five books trace the different stages of his life. In Book I, he was a child who fell in love with the pioneering life. Book II narrates his teenage years in Black Hawk, a small town, when his grandparents grew too old to farm. In Book III Jim was a student at the University of Nebraska. About to enter Law School, he returned to Black Hawk for the summer in Book IV. In the last book, he returned to Nebraska again, but this time as a married man, and a successful New York City lawyer. Each book is shorter than the last, with some subtle results. First, the largest part of the book is given over to the childhood years, the best years, as the novel would have it. The construction also gives a strong sense of the accelerating speed of Jim’s life as he grows up, and, the reverse of the coin, the rapid loss of the earlier years. Not only in its mood, but also in its structure, the novel proves true Virgil’s line, quoted in the epigraph: Optima dies . . . prima fugit.
Intertwined with the Bildungsroman is a romance. Jim first sees Ántonia, and her Czech immigrant family, in the train that brings him to Nebraska. They discover they live on neighboring farms, and they become inseparable, first in each other’s company, and then in each other’s mind. Passionate, independent, tough, Ántonia is a fully realized, if highly romantic, character in Jim’s narrative. But she is more. In the novel’s introduction, Jim’s childhood friend agreed with him that Ántonia means to them “the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” The love for Ántonia is also a love for the country that is the Great Plains. That she is an immigrant reinforces the idea that American culture is immigrant culture at heart. Even Jim, like Cather herself, knows geographic displacement personally. When he returns in Book V to visit Ántonia and her large family, he sees in her a richly tempered mixture of the personal, national and universal:
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. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
The last paragraph rises to mythic resonance, a considerable achievement when the literary fashion of Cather’s time did not consider the people she wrote about worthwhile material for even a novel. What this novel lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in memorability, or what it calls “immemorial human attitudes," to love, loss, danger, survival, and the irrecoverable past.