I've been frustrated reading My Antonia for book group; the story never goes anywhere. Then, this morning, I realized that this book is not a single large narrative, but many small ones. It's a collection of individual stories, of personal histories, held together by a connecting thread, a thread that's maybe a little weak, but isn't meant to be strong.
Ironically, it's exactly the kind of book I'd like to write. I just could not recognize it at first.
My Antonia is the story of an idyllic world, an Arcadia of field work and lazy summer days, of cold winters and joyful holiday gatherings. Cather's characters embody the pastoral lifestyle I esteem. Indeed, many of the anecdotes remind me of my youth.
The framing structure of the novel relates the story of a young boy, Jim, and his growing friendship with an older immigrant girl, Antonia, as both adjust to life on the Nebraska prairie during the 1890s. (That's my best guess at the date, based on the presence of phonographs, the popularity of roller-skating, the absence of automobiles, etc.) But this framework is just that: a framework. It's a simple structure upon which Cather has hung portraits of the varied people in Jim and Antonia's lives.
There are a score of chapter-length tales about the individuals that populate the prairie. One chapter tells the mournful tale of two brothers and their self-imposed exile from Russia. Another briefly tells of a passing tramp, his quest for beer, and what became of him in the threshing machine. My favorite so far tells of a blind black man, raised in the South (where slavery still remains "in spirit if not in fact"), who becomes something of a musical prodigy with the piano.
I devour nuggets like these. I love short, personal histories. This is why I find Garrison Keillor's tales from Lake Wobegon so charming. This is why I am enthralled by Rick Steber's Tales of the Wild West series. (This series, despite its misleading name, is essentially a collection of transcriptions from the personal histories of early Oregon residents. Simple but compelling.)
When I think about my writing in the grand scheme, I doubt that I'll ever publish a novel or accumulate short fiction that amounts to anything. However, I would be pleased to assemble a group of short personal histories, real and imagined, of people in the Willamette Valley. I've already begun this, to an extent. Each of the short stories I've written is a conscious attempt to fit this mold. And in my mind, each of the stories takes place in the same small town, someplace between Canby and Silverton. A town called Oglesby.
I need to take another writing class.
On this day at foldedspace.org
2003 — Cell Phone Culture I hate our cell phone culture. Many of you -- MOST of you -- love your cell phone. Why?
2002 — It's Borimir! It's Borimir! So Kris and I are watching Patriot Games and the first time we see the main bad guy we both say, "Who is that? He looks familiar?"