In Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, Jim Burden becomes an orphan when he is still a young boy living in Virginia. Sent by relatives, he travels by rail to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. During the course of his trip across country, he meets a family from Bohemia, the Shimerdas, who are headed toward the same small Nebraska town and who ultimately live not far from Jim. Jim, then, is traveling to Nebraska to achieve a new family life; the Shimerdas already constitute a family and are traveling to Nebraska in pursuit of their version of the American dream.
In Book 2, Part X, Mr. Shimerda himself explains some of the circumstances surrounding the family’s trip to Nebraska:
He wanted us to know that they were not beggars in the old country; he made good wages, and his family were respected there. He left Bohemia with more than a thousand dollars in savings, after their passage money was paid. He had in some way lost on exchange in New York, and the railway fare to Nebraska was more than they had expected.
This passage implies that the Shimerdas have moved to Nebraska to improve lives that were not entirely awful to begin with. They came to work (and are indeed hard workers) and to take advantages of the opportunities America offered. Jim, then, was in some ways more disadvantaged originally than the Shimerdas were on the trip to Nebraska, since he was an orphan and had no immediate family, particularly no supportive siblings and parents, as Ántonia had.
Ironically, of course, things do not go well for the Shimerdas, and Mr. Shimerda, depressed by the hard life his family endures in Nebraska, ultimately kills himself. If he and his family had stayed in Bohemia, where they had possessed money and enjoyed respect, they might have been better off. However, like many immigrant families of the time, the Shimerdas apparently saw America as a place where they could flourish.
Ultimately it is Jim, the orphan, who prospers. In the Introduction to the novel, the unnamed narrator tells us something about Jim’s present life:
Although Jim Burden and I both live in New York, and are old friends, I do not see much of him there. He is legal counsel for one of the great Western railways, and is sometimes away from his New York office for weeks together.
For the Shimerdas, the trip to Nebraska did not turn out nearly so well as it ultimately did for Jim.
Although Jim is an orphan in Willa Cather's My Antonia, it is interesting that Antonia' family seems to be so much more worse off than Jim. Hardship comes in many forms.
Jim has lost his parents and was being sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska.
I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and my mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska.
Jim is traveling by train with Jake Marpole, someone who had worked on his father's farm. Neither one of them had been on a train before. Jake buys everything anyone offers him, including buttons, candy, oranges, etc. For Jim, he purchases a copy of "Life of Jesse James," which Jim greatly enjoys. Jim meets interesting people, and takes turns reading and watching the landscape pass by. It is at this point that Jim first hears of Antonia and her family. When they arrive at Black Hawk, Otto Fuchs is waiting for Jim to take him to his grandparents' home. Jim's first sight of the Shimerda family is as they are being packed into a "farm-wagon" which will take them to their new home. When Jim gets to their homestead, his welcome at his grandparents' home is a warm one.
A tall woman, with wrinkled brown skin and black hair, stood looking down at me; I knew that she must be my grandmother. She had been crying...Then in a very different tone she said, as if to herself, "My how you look like your father!" and I remembered that my father had been her little boy...
Jim arrival is pleasant and the home in which he enters and in which he now belongs is safe, comfortable and pleasant.
In Chapter Three, we learn about the Shimerdas; they are the first Bohemian family to have moved into the area. They do not have much: the house is hardly enough to protect them from the weather. Jim and his grandmother go to welcome them with food. The only man who can speak their language is Krajiek, and he tells them whatever he wants (not necessarily what is best for them)—they are at his mercy for all of their needs. The father is very frail and will not be able to care much for his family. The "house" that Krajiek has sold them is...
...no better than a badger hole; no proper dugout at all. And I hear he's made them pay twenty dollars for his old cookstove that ain't worth ten.
Krajiek has also sold them thin livestock—two boney horses and an ox. In essence, he has cheated them. Even though he can speak their language, he has taken terrible advantage of them and they have no money left.
While Jim travels on the train with a sense of excitement for his future, Antonia's family arrives with fears and apprehension about what the future holds for them. And while Jim has good reason to be optimistic, Antonia (while seeming not to have that same reason), appears to easily find reasons to laugh, and also has a natural ability to learn. (Her father asks Jim's grandmother to teach Antonia English, and this task comes to rest with Jim.) Having very little, the Shimerdas will depend on their neighbors' generosity to survive.
Jim leads a comfortable life compared to the Shimerdas. Jim's grandparents will do their best to help the Bohemian family find ways to survive. The two youngsters face very different situations at first, but they will develop a common bond that will last for many years.