The Grimdark Odyssey that is ‘My Antonia’ by Willa Cather

So, The Great American Read is going on as we speak, and I’ve decided to be inspired and check out a few classics that have fallen by the wayside for me. The first I read was ‘Catch 22’ a book I reread every five years or so. It’s a darkly funny antiwar novel. The next classic I read was ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Nora Zeal Hurston which I’ve never read. It’s the tale of an African-American woman’s life in the years following the Civil War. Both are great books. Both stories are suffused with a mix of darkness and despair and humor.

The third classic I read was ‘My Antonia’ by Willa Cather. I picked it up because I’d read ‘O Pioneers’ a long time ago and remembered enjoying it for some reason. So I figured I’d give ‘My Antonia’ a whirl. I won’t say that ‘My Antonia’ trumped the other two tales in terms of an overall sense of darkness and despair, but there was one scene in the book that was like a punch to the gut for a book I initially took to be a sort of YA coming-of-age story set in the 19th century.

‘My Antonia’ is indeed a coming-of-age story set in the 19th century. It’s told from the perspective of Jim Burden, a young boy growing up on the plains of Nebraska. He’s raised by his grandparents who are exceedingly stolid farming folk. They are strong and righteous and good and set a fine example for young Jim. Jim also has neighbors, the Shimerdas, who’ve recently moved nearby. They are somewhat less stolid, (the father’s a flake and the mother’s a jerk) with the exception of the titular Antonia, the eldest daughter of that clan. She is a wonderfully strong young woman whose vibrancy and lust for life leaves a lasting impression on Jim.

Life goes on. Good stuff. Bad stuff. Read the book, Willa Cather is a fantastic writer.

Amidst all this good and bad life stuff is the gut-punching story of Peter and Pavel. I remember stopping and rereading it. It was sort of like when Ned Stark got his head cut off. I wasn’t sure I read it properly.

Peter and Pavel are Russian immigrants who are Jim and Antonia’s neighbors. They are friends particularly with Antonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda, with whom they gather and tell tales of the old country. They seem like a pair of eccentric but essentially good-hearted bachelors. The Nebraskan plains folk like them. The kids like them. Everyone likes them.

The story moves on.

We learn Peter and Pavel left Russia under nebulous circumstances. It doesn’t really raise anyone’s eyebrow until one night when Pavel takes ill and becomes bedridden. He deteriorates quickly, both physically and mentally. In the throes of a consuming fever, with coyotes howling outside, Pavel is tormented by something. Someone. Phantoms. In his throes, he whispers a confession to Antonia’s father in Russian. Jim can only sit by and listen and watch without understanding.

Poor Antonia, however, sits there and listens with understanding.

Jim’s the lucky one.

‘“He’s scared of the wolves,” Antonia whispered to me.’(My Antonia p.28)

So begins a confession that slightly tarnishes the initial view that Peter and Pavel are a pair of good-hearted bachelors.

Cut to Antonia relating Pavel’s story to Jim.

Now, if you want to know the story without me spoiling it for you, stop reading this and go read ‘My Antonia.’ (Also, and unsurprisingly, Cather tells it much better them I.) I know, it’s maybe not your preferred genre. It’s generally not my preferred genre, but reading something a little different is good for you. Get out of your comfort zone. And it’s not long, only 175 pages. Every library in the world has it. And Willa Cather can write. You’ll blow right through it.

But if you’re lazy like me, and you want a synopsis of Pavel’s story, here goes.

Many years ago, Peter and Pavel were part of a wedding party in Russia. They were riding on a sledge with the bride and groom, leading a party of six sledges back to their home village from the nuptial celebration. It was winter, obviously. Snow blanketed the ground and I quote, “The wolves were bad that winter.”(Cather 30)

It was NOT, the WEATHER was bad. NOT, the SNOW was bad. NOT even the WIND was bad. No. The WOLVES were bad that winter.

Things deteriorate quickly from this point.

A pack of wolves starts following the party. There’s an accident and one sledge overturns, all of its riders spilling free. Carnage ensues. The spilled riders are set upon and slaughtered by the wolves. The good news is, those wolves have full bellies now and can barely run. The bad news? There are a lot more wolves, and they are a bloodthirsty bunch. The horses drawing the sledges go mad with panic.

The remaining sledges race through the moonlit snow toward the safety of a their home village.

Peter and Pavel and the newlyweds are in the lead sledge, and theirs holds only the four as opposed the other sledges which are overladen with revelers. Which makes them slower. And tastier. Also, they’re not reveling at this point.

Then, one by one, the wolves overtake the sledges behind and slaughter the riders.

In the home stretch for the safety of their village, Pavel notices that one of their horses is injured. He’s not going to make it. Under the strain, he’s going to fall and take the other horses with him. The wolves behind are gaining. What can they do?

Pavel, in a stroke of Mac Gyver-like brilliance, suggests to the groom that they lighten the load for the poor horse by throwing his new bride to the wolves. The groom is a good guy, however, and refuses. Pavel is not such a good guy, though, and knocks the groom out of the sledge. The wolves eat him. Then for good measure, he hurls the bride out after. Then they eat her. There ends the quickest marriage in Russian history.

The good news? With their load lightened, the injured horse and team triumphs and delivers our heroes to the safety of the village. Peter and Pavel survive! Sure, they’re ostracized by their village for murder, driven out, harangued out of their country and forced to move eventually to the wilds of Nebraska, the only place that will take them, but they survive.

And so we all learn a lesson from this dark tale: don’t invite Peter or Pavel to your wedding. They’ll murder you with wolves.

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