Critical Essays The Real Ántonia


When the Cather family left their country farm and moved into the small town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1884, Mary Miner, the second Miner daughter, brought Willa a bottle of perfume, nestled in a red plush slipper. Thus began Cather's lifetime friendship with the Miner family, who were to become the models for the Harlings in My Ántonia.

Cather's friendship with Annie Sadilek, the model for Ántonia, blossomed when Annie was employed as the Miner family's "hired girl." It's possible, however, that the girls may have known each other earlier, when they both lived in the country. The road to Red Cloud passed near the Sadilek dugout, and one of Willa's favorite pastimes was visiting her immigrant neighbors. In fact, Cather has said that she "saw a good deal of [the original Ántonia] from the time I was eight until I was twelve."

The Sadileks left their village of Mzizovic, Bohemia, in October 1880. There was only one other Bohemian family on their ship, the rest were Polish, and they landed in America on November 5. Francis Sadilek had received letters from America that told of the country's beauty and prosperity, and he wanted his family to have a better life. What he ended up with was a 160-acre Nebraska farm with nothing on it but a sod house, a bed, and a four-lid stove.

The hard living conditions on the prairie, the dugouts, and the roads that were no more than a set of wagon tracks disillusioned Francis Sadilek. On February 15, he told his wife that he was going rabbit hunting. He took the shotgun he'd brought from the Old Country and went out. When he hadn't returned by 5:00 p.m., Mrs. Sadilek, Annie's older brother, and the man whom the Sadileks lived with went to search for him. They found him half-sitting in an old barn; he had shot himself in the head. He was buried on a corner of the Sadilek farm, at the crossroads, although his son Anton later moved the body to the Catholic section of the Red Cloud cemetery. Mrs. Sadilek and the two Sadilek boys are also buried there.

In a 1955 letter to a schoolgirl, Annie Sadilek Pavelka writes: " . . . most all is true that you read in the Book thoug [sic] most of the names are changed."

Willa Cather told the story of Francis Sadilek's suicide in her first published story, "Peter," written during her freshman year in college, and again in My Ántonia. In a 1934 letter to Carrie Miner Sherwood, she said that if she'd written only one thing in her life, it would have been My Ántonia because of the many times she'd heard about the Sadilek suicide story shortly after her family arrived in Nebraska.

Willa and Carrie speculated endlessly on Mr. Sadilek's occupation before he came to America and about why he'd taken his life. They also discussed the other Sadilek family members: the crippled little sister who didn't go to school, the deaf brother who tried to be friendly but usually startled people instead, the controlling older brother, and the demanding mother who wanted her family to be successful. Annie's mother always insisted that visitors take sugar with their coffee because she believed that being able to provide sugar was a sign of prosperity.

After her mother's death, Christina Sadilek, Annie's crippled younger sister, entered the St. Francis Convent at Lafayette, Indiana; convent records show the date as September 4, 1897. At the convent, Christina proved to be an excellent baker and was also given the duty of teaching young girls. This life apparently agreed with her because she lost all traces of the illness from which she'd suffered as a child.

Like Ántonia, Annie took over her father's chores after his death, but the work eventually proved to be too difficult, and she was finally forced to become a hired girl in the Miner home. She was a hard worker. Although she'd never cooked before, she soon learned how to prepare meals and how to sew. When Mrs. Miner gave her permission to use the sewing machine, she made all the clothes, including husking gloves, for her family. She made everyday shoes for herself out of cardboard, oilcloth, and denim, which she tied to her feet with black tape. The shoes flapped when she hurried about breathlessly getting her work done.

Annie often went with the Miner children to the Red Cloud Opera House. She loved to dance and would have danced all night if she didn't have to get some sleep so she could work the next day. Because Annie was under eighteen, her family collected her wages, but Carrie Miner, the model for Frances Harling in My Ántonia, finally made sure that Annie had enough money left over for shoes.

Annie later went West to marry a brakeman for the Burlington railroad. After only a few weeks, however, he deserted her, and she returned to her family on the farm.

Cather went on to the university in Lincoln and soon began a promising journalism career. She moved away from Nebraska and lost touch with Annie, but, in 1914, she found her again. Although Edith Lewis suggests that this meeting took place in 1916, critic James Woodress points out that in 1914, while she was writing The Song of the Lark, Cather spent two weeks visiting immigrant friends in the Red Cloud area. Therefore, he maintains, it seems likely that she renewed her friendship with Annie at this time. Also, if we assume that My Ántonia begins in the year the Cathers arrived in Nebraska, then Jim Burden's return from New York to visit Ántonia would be in 1914.

Cather discovered that Annie had married a fellow Bohemian, John Pavelka, who would become the model for Neighbor Rosicky, in the short story of the same name. Moreover, Annie was mother to a clan of strong, healthy children. Her daughters were beautiful and her sons excelled in high school sports. Cather enjoyed her visits with the Pavelkas. She especially liked sitting at the long table in Annie's cheerful kitchen and she had long enjoyed Bohemian cooking — especially kolaches and Annie's banana cream pie. The food storage cave, characteristic of all Midwestern farm homes, described in the final section of the novel is an accurate depiction of the Pavelkas' food storage cave.

Cather got along well with Annie's sons, whose manners, she said, "would do credit to the family of a Grand Duke," and, when it was time for her to leave, they escorted her to her carriage. John Pavelka was as proud of his children as Annie was, agreeing that raising healthy and happy children was more important than acquiring land or money. John was fond of telling strangers that he was "the husband of My Ántonia," and one of the Pavelka sons, even as an old man, would proudly say, "I'm Leo, the mischievous one."

After her mother died in 1931, Cather returned to Red Cloud for a short while to visit old friends and tie up family affairs. Although she would continue writing letters and sending gifts to people she knew, including Annie Pavelka, she never went home again.

Annie died at the age of eighty-six on April 24, 1955, eight years to the day after Willa Cather's death, and is buried in the Cloverton Cemetery near Bladen, Nebraska. She became hard of hearing toward the end of her life, but she never lost the vitality or the energy that Willa Cather captured in Ántonia Shimerda. One of Annie's sons has said that his mother "was happier with a crust of bread and a new baby than someone else would be with a million dollars."

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