Summary and Analysis
Book I: The Shimerdas:
The first few weeks of winter are beautiful but bitter, and Jim takes Ántonia and Yulka in a sled, which Otto built, to the Russians' old house. When they start back, around four, the wind has come up, howling across the plains, and the sky has become gray. The girls begin shivering because their clothes aren't warm enough, and Jim gives Yulka his neck scarf, which she forgets to return. Quinsy, an acute inflammation of the tonsils, keeps Jim inside for two weeks after the sled ride, and he reads to his grandmother. On Saturday nights, she pops corn and makes taffy. Sometimes, Otto tells stories.
From Jake's remarks, Grandmother thinks the Shimerdas may be reduced to eating prairie dogs, so she and Jake and Jim take food to their neighbors and are appalled at their wretched living conditions. Mrs. Shimerda reproaches them for their lack of neighborliness, but after Jake brings in the hamper of food, she breaks down and cries.
Mr. Shimerda tells them that they were not beggars in the Old Country. In fact, they have plans for a new log house in the spring, but now the girls must sleep in an alcove dug into the wall of the dugout. Grandmother worries that the Shimerdas don't have enough "horse-sense" to survive on the Nebraska prairie.
Before the guests leave, Mrs. Shimerda gives Grandmother a small sack of something and gives little explanation — except to indicate that it is good to eat. When she gets home, Grandmother tosses the package into the stove, but not before Jim samples one of the items inside; it will be years before he realizes that the sack contained dried mushrooms, gathered "in some deep Bohemian forest."
A snowstorm on the twenty-first of December prevents Jake from going into Black Hawk for Christmas gifts, so they decide to have "a country Christmas," with homemade presents. Grandmother bakes gingerbread cookies, which they decorate with colored frosting. Otto makes candles and fastens them on the little cedar tree that Jake cut from the prairie. They send gifts to the Shimerdas.
Morning prayers on Christmas day are longer than usual. Grandfather reads from the Book of Matthew about the birth of Christ, then thanks the Lord for their food and comfort. He prays for the poor and destitute whose hardships are greater than their own, and a feeling of peace-on-earth pervades the household.
Late in the afternoon, Mr. Shimerda arrives and thanks them for their kindness to his family. After the Burdens ask him to stay for supper, he relaxes in the warm atmosphere. There is an uneasy moment when the candles are lighted on the Christmas tree and Mr. Shimerda falls on his knees and crosses himself. Grandmother fears that Grandfather — who is "rather narrow in religious matters" — will say something, but he just bows his head. After their guest leaves, Grandfather tells Jim that the prayers of all good people are good.
In these chapters, we see a stark contrast between life in the Burden household and life in the Shimerda dugout. We also watch Mr. Shimerda sinking deeper and deeper into depression, caused in part by his own observation of the differences between the two households — differences both in material comforts and in the relationships among family members.
When winter descends on the prairie, the Burdens are safe and warm and happy. The Shimerdas, however, are confined to their stuffy cave with only a few provisions; sadly, the few provisions they do have are rotting. Mrs. Shimerda blames the Burdens, whom she thinks should share more of their wealth. But Mr. Shimerda speaks calmly of his plans for the spring. Ántonia tries to explain her family's behavior to the Burdens. For example, to explain Mrs. Shimerda's outburst, she tells Grandmother that her mother is "so sad." When Grandmother is shocked that the girls sleep in a little cave in the wall "not much bigger than an oil barrel," Ántonia maintains that she likes to sleep there because it's warm. Ántonia makes the best of difficult situations, and she hopes for understanding and compassion between the two families.
When a snowstorm forces the Burdens to have an old-fashioned Christmas, members of the family, who themselves have been transplanted to the prairie, contribute items from their own "old countries": colored paper figures from Austria, ones that Otto's mother has sent him during the years, form a nativity scene under the tree, and Jim pastes Sunday School cards and advertising cards that he's brought from Virginia into a book for Yulka.
When Mr. Shimerda spends Christmas day with the Burdens, he seems to be in better spirits than they've seen him in a long time. "I suppose," Jim says, "in the crowded clutter of their cave, the old man had come to believe that peace and order had vanished from the earth, or existed only in the old world he had left so far behind."
Here, Cather states the key problem of all immigrants: the preservation of enough of their household goods and customs so as to make life bearable in a new world. Mr. Shimerda kneels before the Burdens' Christmas tree in reverence to his God, and Grandfather Burden bows his head and Protestantizes the atmosphere, seeing his own notion of God. Each man must preserve his own vision.
bobs knobs, or small polished wheels of solid felt or leather with rounded edges.
Bohemie Ántonia is trying to pronounce Bohemia, the American name for her country. The Bohemian word for Bohemia is Bohèma.
horse sense [Informal] common sense.
make up a purse take up a collection.
Mamenka Cather may have misspelled the familiar Bohemian word for mama, which is maminka.
pommel the rounded, upward-projecting front part of a saddle.
quinsy former term for tonsillitis, inflammation of the tonsils.