After Jim Burden's parents die, his Virginia relatives send the ten-year-old boy to live with his grandparents on their Nebraska farm. He travels by train in the care of teenage Jake Marpole, who was a "hand," a man hired to do chores, on his father's farm. The passenger conductor tells Jim and Jake about an immigrant family on the train whose destination is the same as theirs, and he teases Jim about the attractive girl, near his own age, who is the only one in her family who can speak any English. Otto Fuchs, a farmhand for Jim's grandfather, meets Jim and Jake at the station and drives them out to Grandfather Burden's farm in a wagon.
When Jim awakens, it is afternoon. After a bath in the tin washtub behind the kitchen cookstove, he explores the long cellar next to the kitchen. At supper he meets his bald, blue-eyed, white-bearded grandfather, and that evening he listens to Otto's tales about his adventures in the Far West. Otto answers all of Jim's questions and, in secret, tells the boy about the pony that has been purchased for him. The next day Jim explores the farmyard and goes to the garden to dig with his grandmother, who always takes her rattlesnake cane with her. After she goes back to the house, Jim stays in the garden alone and dreams away the morning, feeling at peace — part of the fabric of the earth, the sun, and the wine-red sea of tall, unending prairie grass.
On Sunday morning, Grandmother, Otto, and Jim take some provisions to their new neighbors, the Shimerdas, who have been living in a lean-to that fronts a cave, eating only corncakes and molasses. While Peter Krajiek translates for Otto and Grandmother, Jim, Ántonia, and Yulka run across the prairie and snuggle down in the tall grass to talk. Ántonia wants to learn English words, and Jim teaches her a few. Later, back at the dugout, Mr. Shimerda gives Grandmother Burden a book containing both an English and a Bohemian alphabet and asks her to teach English to Ántonia.
Jim takes his first long pony ride and is deeply impressed with the rich autumn colors in Nebraska. Over the next several weeks, he takes many rides, exploring the countryside and listening to Otto's stories about the West. Almost every day, Ántonia comes for her reading lesson with Jim; Mrs. Shimerda isn't too happy about this arrangement, but grudgingly she realizes that at least one member of the family should learn English. During those first weeks, the Shimerdas never go to town because Krajiek has made them suspicious of the townspeople.
Colored by Jim's feelings and imagination, the first chapter sets the tone of the story. Jake buys young Jim a copy of Life of Jesse James, a book which he remembers as "one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read." Jesse James was a romantic figure who became the legendary Robin Hood of the West — robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Jim illustrates how deeply this book has affected him when he comments that on first seeing Otto Fuchs, "he might have stepped out of the pages of 'Jesse James.'" He goes on to describe him as though Otto were a romantic, reckless character of the Wild West.
As they drive out to the farm through the darkness, Jim feels totally isolated. "There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." Initially, Jim feels desolate, "erased, blotted out"; not even the spirits of his dead parents are watching over him. His destiny is in the hands of fate.
Jim is especially in awe of Otto Fuchs, listening intently to stories of his experiences and prodding him with questions. Jim compares the prairie country of Nebraska to the sea: "The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains." This passage suggests Homer's "wine-dark sea" in the Odyssey and implies that Jim is on a journey of discovery as was Odysseus. Cather will allude to literary classics many times throughout her novel, as if to remind us that this story has a greater significance than merely being about homesteaders settling the West; its meaning is timeless, larger than any of its characters, and of epic proportions. Jim alludes to the days of Homer and of the Bible, when the world was believed to be flat, when he says "I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world. . . ."
In his grandmother's garden, Jim is happy and wonders if people feel like this when they die and "become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge." He feels as if he is a part of nature, as human beings originally were in the Garden of Eden before Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
The Shimerdas buy their land from fellow countryman Peter Krajiek, who cheats them because they don't understand English or the value of goods. Mr. Shimerda is neatly dressed and seems to be a melancholy Old World gentleman, whereas Mrs. Shimerda complains about the shed-like house that fronts their cave, and Ambrosch displays interest in the food that the Burdens bring. Only Ántonia seems truly vital and alive, untouched by the hardships.
We see the special relationship between Ántonia and her father when the girl kisses his hand, and when Mr. Shimerda gives Grandmother Burden a book and asks her to teach Ántonia to speak English. Mr. Shimerda has great hopes for his daughter in this new world; to give her a chance at a better life is one of the reasons he came to America.
Jim explores the grassy, treeless prairie. "[T]here were no fences in those days," he says. Keeping in mind that the novel is told from the vantage point of Jim's adulthood, the phrase "in those days" takes on a metaphorical meaning. As a child, Jim had more options open to him; his life could have taken any one of many directions. As an adult, however, his life has been restricted by an unhappy marriage and other disappointments.
Jim recounts Otto's story about the origin of the sunflowers, which he said were brought to this country by the Mormons. Although Jim acknowledges that botanists currently claim the sunflower is native to the plains, the story has taken root in his mind, and in the phrase — the "sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom" — we can almost detect a tone of regret.
Ántonia enjoys helping Jim's grandmother in the kitchen, and thereby we learn that Mrs. Shimerda's wretched housekeeping is in sharp contrast to Grandmother Burden's careful planning. During their first several months on the prairie, the Shimerdas never go to town, because Krajiek has convinced them that in town they will "somehow be mysteriously separated from their money." They hate Krajiek, but cling to him because he is the only one whom they can easily talk to — and because they don't know how to get rid of him.
badger any of certain mammals of a family of burrowing carnivores of North America, Europe, and Asia, with a broad back, thick, short legs, and long claws on the forefeet.
Bohemia a former independent kingdom in central Europe (13th-15th centuries); part of Austria-Hungary until 1918 and then part of Czechoslovakia until 1993, when it was incorporated into the Czech Republic.
box-elder a medium-sized, fast-growing North American maple, with compound leaves.
catalpa any of a genus of hardy American and Asiatic trees of the bignonia family, with large, heart-shaped leaves, showy clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers, and slender beanlike pods
chaps leather trousers without a seat, worn over ordinary trousers by cowboys to protect their legs.
corral an enclosure for holding or capturing horses, cattle, or other animals; pen.
day-coaches railroad cars used for daytime travel only.
divide a ridge that divides two drainage areas; watershed.
draw a shallow gully or ravine, as one that water drains into or through.
dugout a shelter dug in the ground or in a hillside.
fire-break a strip of land cleared or plowed to stop the spread of fire, as in a forest or prairie.
ground-cherry bushes any of a genus of plants of the nightshade family, including the Chinese-lantern plant, having small tomatolike fruits completely enclosed by a papery calyx.
heavy work-horses horses used for working, as for pulling a plow.
kawn-tree Ántonia's pronunciation of country.
Mormons members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called the Mormon Church), founded in the U.S. in 1830 by Joseph Smith; among its sacred books is the Book of Mormon, represented by Smith as his translation of an account of some ancient American peoples by a prophet among them named Mormon.
Prague capital of Bohemia (later of Czecholoslovakia, and now of the Czech Republic), on the Vltava River.
spurs a pair of pointed devices worn on the heels by the rider of a horse and used to urge the horse forward.
Tatinek a familiar Bohemian term meaning papa.
windmill a mill operated by the wind's rotation of large, oblique sails or vanes radiating from a shaft; used as a source of power for grinding grain, pumping water, generating electricity, etc.