The prairie is as much a character in Cather’s book as Jim or Antonia herself. Like Antonia, for example, the land around Black Hawk also grows and develops over the course of the book, starting out as virgin prairie and gradually transforming in to settled farms. The landscape defines how people exist in the book; the hardships the Shimerdas face in the beginning are in relation to their difficulty in farming the land, and Mr. Shimerda’s suicide is brought on by homesickness. But it is also the beauty of the land that comes to mirror Antonia’s life; there is an odd connection between her and the land that captivates Jim but also eludes his understanding. In this way the land can be thought of as a kind of emblem of Antonia, but it would be wrong to reduce its meaning to any simple symbolic formula, because the land always stands apart and separate from the characters or action of the story. There are many examples of this. Take, for instance, the passage where Mr. Shimerda offers to give Jim his ornately carved gun from Bohemia. This is a moment of genuine tenderness between Antonia, who has hidden a cricket in her hair, and her father, who has sunk into depression in this strange new land. It is as if he is saying goodbye. Cather writes a few sentences that in their beautiful simplicity, capture the moment:
We stood there in friendly silence, while the feeble minstrel sheltered in Antonia’s hair went on with its scratchy chirp. The old man’s smile, as he listened, was so full of sadness, of pity for things, that I never afterward forgot it. As the sun sank there came a sudden coolness and the strong smell of earth and drying grass. Antonia and her father went off hand in hand, and I buttoned up my jacket and raced my shadow home.
There is a certain unity between the characters, the sound of the cricket, and the “sudden coolness and strong smell of earth” that suggests that whatever emotions might be in play, they are reflected by, or intensified by, the fundamental truth of the flat landscape. The image of Jim racing his shadow across the plains back to his house only underlines this relationship.
What Laura Ingalls Wilder did for the white, Anglo pioneers of America in the 1800’s, it might be argued Willa Cather did for American immigrant pioneers. Wilder, of course, documented in a fictional setting the trials and tribulations of her family searching America’s ever moving frontier for prosperity, while Cather uses the character of Antonia Shimerda to create a portrait of the same experience from an immigrant’s point of view. Of course, the Nebraska prairie, the novel’s setting, is of paramount importance in this book, because it is, of course, the livelihood for immigrant farmers. However, Cather also uses the land as a sort of metaphor for a rapidly disappearing way of life as industrialization continues to thread its way from East to West. The prairies are a source of romance and extreme beauty with an undercurrent of nostalgic sadness, echoed in the desolation of a place where one can sometimes see nothing but prairie grasses in every direction. For Antonia’s childhood friend, Jim, this idyllic natural setting also becomes emblematic of his emotional life; the river becomes a place where he feels free, and the setting sun serves to remind him of the life of loneliness he is living even as time marches on.