Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 1 Chapters 10 11 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 1, Chapters 10–11 : The Shimerdas | Summary

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Summary

Book 1, Chapter 10

Otto tells Mrs. Burden he has seen Mr. Shimerda wearing the family's only shared overcoat and Ambrosch carrying dead prairie dogs, and she becomes alarmed for the family's health and welfare. She wonders why the Shimerdas didn't get chickens when they first arrived. Jake, Mrs. Burden, and Jim take food to the Shimerdas, who have become desperate and discouraged. Mrs. Shimerda is angry, while her husband is depressed. He explains that their life was very different in Bohemia. Although they came to America with plenty of savings, they have used nearly all of it. He says they have enough to start a farm and a build a home if they can survive the winter. He shows them a hole behind the stove, dug for Ántonia and Yulka to sleep in and stay warm. Mrs. Burden is shocked that the Shimerdas have rotting potatoes and no proper root cellar. Mrs. Shimerda gives them a bag of some kind of dried chips which Ántonia says are delicious. On the drive home, Mrs. Burden expresses exasperation at how poorly the Shimerdas have managed to cope, saying Jim could do better himself. Jake says Ambrosch is a hard worker but mean. Mrs. Burden throws the strange chips in the fire but not before Jim tries a small piece. He later realizes they were dried mushrooms.

Book 1, Chapter 11

A few days before Christmas a blizzard begins. Cut off from town, the Burden household decides "to have a country Christmas," making their own decorations and gifts. After Jake takes some presents to the Shimerdas he brings back a freshly cut Christmas tree. Otto decorates the tree with ornaments his mother has sent him from Austria over the years depicting the nativity, making the tree full of "legends and stories." Under the tree, white cotton sheets mimic snow, and a small mirror makes a small lake. Jim later remembers Otto and Jake fondly as gentle souls.

Analysis

The author once again contrasts the Burdens and the Shimerdas to show how strange the customs and thinking of immigrants were to more established settlers. The author highlights the differences between the two families in order to show why established settlers tended to view immigrants judgmentally. In Chapter 10 Mrs. Burden wonders why the Shimerdas haven't planned for winter better and is appalled at their dugout home. She can't think why they didn't get themselves chickens right away or why they lack a root cellar to store vegetables. She claims Jim would know better how to survive than the Shimerdas. The Burdens' comfortable way of life and accumulated knowledge of what works well in Nebraska makes it easy for them to judge the Shimerdas. However, Mr. Shimerda claims they planned and saved for their immigration as well as anyone. Misfortunes have simply overcome them. Without their familiar homeland, community, and language, cheated of their savings, with no farming experience, the Shimerdas are understandably adrift and desperate. What they thought would work, hasn't. Although the Burdens help their neighbors, their assistance does not come without a sense of superiority. The author juxtaposes the homes of the two families to illustrate the viewpoint of each and the lack of understanding between the two families at this point in the novel.

The author develops the character of Ambrosch in Chapter 10, mostly through foreshadowing. Ambrosch is out hunting prairie dogs to help his family survive, and Jake affirms he is hard worker. However, Jake understands something about Ambrosch that readers have yet to see. Jake says Ambrosch is mean. Readers will soon see evidence of this personality trait.

Chapter 11 epitomizes the nostalgia which characterizes much of Cather's work. The scene of the snowy Christmas Eve, with all the family creating handmade gifts and decorating the tree together, is a nod to Christmas past—a "Country Christmas" that had disappeared even when Cather was child, with the town nearby and shops in which to buy readymade gifts. The nativity ornaments recall the first Christmas as well as Otto's homeland and family, and the fake snow and pond under the tree reflect the frontier prairie each one of them have come to call home—a place Cather loves, a place which has all but disappeared at the time of the publication of the novel.

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