Both of these works are representative of Americana: the portrayal of some essential quality that seems to typify the America of old, of tradition and the past, including features that have presumably been lost in the modern era. That the two novels do this in completely different ways might be seen as a problem in pairing them for a reading assignment, but it's also an advantage, since the stories can also be viewed as two sides of the same coin, despite their differences.
Both books deal with American rural life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both show hardships—the harsh conditions of time and place. The lack of the available technology we often take for granted is a principal factor in our perception of the two novels. But anyone who has read both would remark on the obvious fact that Ethan Frome is a much grimmer, harsher story than My Ántonia. In Will Cather's book there is a lyrical, poetic quality in Jim Burden's perception of the endless landscape of Nebraska and in his idealized connection with a young immigrant girl, "his" Antonia. Even the title of the book, with its benign possessiveness, tells of vanished mystery that existed in the perceived potential of the American Dream at that time.
Little in the way of the lyrical or benign exists in Ethan Frome despite the similarities in the rural settings of the novels. There is, as well, another striking factor in the difference between the Massachusetts setting of Wharton's novel; the "old" America, which does not seem to have changed all that much since colonial times (even the name "Ethan" is vaguely evocative of the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen), and the "new" America, the vast midwest. Wharton gives the impression that Frome's environment, like Frome himself, represents a kind of living death. Yet even with these dissimilarities, the pairing of the stories is appropriate because the differences serve as points of comparison rooted within the overall dream of America as an almost mystical concept. It's also significant that both novels are by women authors, and that although their narrative voices are those of male characters, the women in both stories—Mattie, Zeena, and Antonia—are arguably as much the focus of the two novels as men are.
Apart from their being iconic portrayals of Americana, a reading assignment of these two works is fitting in our time because so much has changed, and so quickly, in American life in recent decades. It's a truism to say so, but we cannot understand where we're going unless we know where we've come from. Perhaps in reading these novels many people will see that there are certain things that haven't changed much on a deeper level, despite the outward manifestations of U.S. life that seem to have so little in common with the past.