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Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 1 Chapters 12 13 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 1, Chapters 12–13 : The Shimerdas | Summary



Book 1, Chapter 12

On Christmas day after doing their chores, Otto and Jake join the family inside. Jim's grandfather leads the family in a special time of Bible reading and prayer. Jim recalls that it was through prayer that he learned the most about what his quiet grandfather was thinking. Otto spends the afternoon writing his annual letter home to his mother, and Jake tells the Burdens how happy their gifts made the Shimerdas. Mr. Shimerda stops by to thank them in person and ends up staying the whole afternoon and evening, basking in the peace away from the dugout. When Jim lights the candles on the Christmas tree, hung with religious characters, Mr. Shimerda kneels before it, bent in prayer. His body bends like an S before the tree. Mr. Burden, although very exacting in his theology, places his fingers on his forehead, bowing his head and "Protestantizing the atmosphere." When Mr. Shimerda makes the sign of the cross over Jim as he leaves for home, Mr. Burden tells Jim "the prayers of all good people are good."

Book 1, Chapter 13

Ántonia and Mrs. Shimerda come to visit the Burdens, and Mrs. Shimerda jealously exclaims over the furnishing of the home. She grabs on iron pot and says the Burdens have many such pots while her family has none. Mrs. Burden gives her the pot, much to Jim's annoyance. Mrs. Shimerda boasts that she could make better dishes than Mrs. Burden if she had the same provisions. Ántonia tells Jim her father is unwell, refusing to even play his violin. She reveals that her father hadn't wanted to leave Bohemia. It was Mrs. Shimerda who had set her heart on coming to America for the opportunities it could offer Ambrosch. Jim tells his grandmother he hopes Mrs. Shimerda never visits again, but she reminds him that desperation, especially for one's children, can affect people in different ways.

At the end of January a blizzard arrives for Jim's birthday. The snow is so deep, Otto and Jake have to dig tunnels to reach the barn to care for the animals. The snow forces two bulls who had been fighting to huddle together for warmth.


The author develops the character of Jim's grandfather in Chapter 12. Cather shows Mr. Burden to be a sincerely religious but also generous man. Because he seldom speaks, his prayers reveal much of his values and thoughts. Jim comes to know his grandfather through his prayers. Mr. Burden, a Protestant, is very particular about theology and practice, but he is also respectful of religious devotion in others, even when it is Catholic. When Mr. Shimerda bows before the decorated Christmas tree like an altar, Mr. Burden recognizes and honors the pious feelings behind the man's action, rather than expressing a standard Protestant disapproval for this behavior of worshiping symbols or icons. Mr. Burden is also understanding when Mr. Shimerda makes the sign of the cross over Jim, a Catholic symbol of blessing. Instead of protesting, Mr. Burden tells Jim that Mr. Shimerda's intentions make his prayers good. The implication is that in Mr. Burden's mind, Mr. Shimerda's religious sincerity translates and overcomes the Catholic manner in which he chooses to express his piety, which is foreign to them.

Mr. Burden's kind response to the display of Catholic practice in his home by Mr. Shimerda demonstrates generosity and ecumenical tolerance for that time and place. While the vast majority of Americans at the time were Protestant, many European immigrants, like the Shimerdas, were Catholic. The immigration of the 19th century thus resulted in a drastic increase in the Catholic population—by 1906 some 17% of residents in America were Catholic. This catalyzed fear and anti-Catholic hostility among some. Mr. Burden's acceptance and blessing of Mr. Shimerda's display of devotion suggests Cather was opposed to such hysteria and bigotry. It follows from her close relationship with immigrants in Nebraska that Cather opposed any religious intolerance that might be directed toward them.

The image of Mr. Shimerda kneeling, his body bending like an S before the lighted Christmas tree decorated with candles and biblical characters not unlike Catholic religious iconography, is an iconic, lasting scene in the novel. It is the first of several Cather creates in the book, a feature than some say accounts for the novel's lasting place in American literature. These types of images stay with readers, imprinted on the mind's eye, tapping into myth and nostalgia, holding a power mere narrative alone cannot. Long after the exact plot of the novel has left readers, the images, like Mr. Shimerda bowing before the tree, remain.

In contrast to the humble, grateful picture Cather paints of Mr. Shimerda in Chapter 12, the author portrays Mrs. Shimerda as a boastful, jealous, grasping woman in Chapter 13. Mrs. Shimerda complains loudly about all the nice things in the Burden household, jealous that they should have so much while she has so little. Rather than grateful for all they have shared with her, she demands more, claiming they have plenty of pots while she has none. She even has the bad manners to boast she could make better food than Mrs. Burden if she had the same ingredients and tools. Cather makes Mrs. Shimerda a very unsympathetic character while tempering readers' and Jim's dislike of the woman with Mrs. Burden's reminder that desperation can change a person. Readers learn that it was mostly ambition for her son Ambrosch that motivated Mrs. Shimerda to come to America.

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