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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.
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