Interpreting Literature: Session IV My Antonia 4/2/15

A Last Look at Ántonia

We started our last class on My Ántonia with a writing prompt that asked us to imagine that we are moving to a foreign country and we don’t speak the language. The only people we will know there are our immediate families. We don’t know where we will live or what we will do for money. We then had to describe or make a list of the things our families would need to do to survive. This experience is similar to the one our heroine had, and it was great to hear all of the sound and useful ideas the students came up with: learn the language, attempt to network with people that might help us find work, be aware of any cultural differences or barriers, make sure we have the proper clothing for the environment we’re moving to, and research what materials we could use to make shelter/housing . These are all things that Ántonia and her family faced and dealt with when they left their home in Bohemia for the Nebraska prairie.

Before sharing our family tree pages and final projects, we read a wonderful letter in the original words of Annie Sadilek (aka Anna Pavelka). The so-called “Letter to France Samlund” is a letter to a high school student at Benson High School in Omaha, Nebraska from Anna Pavelka. Anna, now eighty-six years old, tells the real story of her first year in Nebraska.

Anna Pavelka, whose maiden name was Anna Sadilek, is the woman on whom the character of Ántonia is based. Willa Cather and Anna Sadilek knew each other in the late 1880s, when Willa was attending school in Red Cloud and Anna was working for the Miner family who lived down the street from the Cathers. After a failed engagement with a railroad man, Anna married John Pavelka, who is the basis for Anton Cuzak in My Ántonia.

We took several minutes to compare the original letter with events at the beginning of the novel, particularly Book One, and defined and identified uses of verbal irony. Even though English wasn’t Annie’s first language and her spelling and punctuation were poor, she knew how to convey irony!

Sing It!

Artist Emmylou HarrisWhat do Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews, and My Ántonia have in common? Good question!

We closed by listening to a song titled, “My Antonia,” a collaboration between Harris and Matthews. After listening to the song we tried to compare and contrast different elements between book and song: use of landscape imagery, narrator’s voice, tone, style, and theme. While it was clear the story in the song did not much resemble that of the Willa Cather novel, we did pick up on some similarities related to narrator’s voice and tone or style. In the end we learned the song is a reinterpretation inspired by the book. Often artists use existing material and change it to express a new story or idea.

Next Up: Mockingbird (not Mockingjay)

Please make sure you have a copy of our last selection, To Kill a Mockingbird, and read the short summary from

See you on April 16. Have a wonderful Easter.

Family Tree Final Projects

To wrap up our study of My Ántonia and our look at the immigrant experience in America, we went around the table and shared as much of our family tree pages as we were able to complete, and talked about some of the countries our ancestors hail from. In this discussion alone we found out we have family members “in our trees” from Germany, Italy, England, and Palestine!

Now and then it all comes together and there is a singular moment when the stars align and there is magic. We were honored that the grandmother of one of our students shared her very poignant memories of growing up in the German Province of Bohemia. Her memories have some similarities with those of our heroine, Ántonia, in terms of some of the difficulties faced in her home country and when emigrating to America. It’s when these real life experiences affirm art that we start to understand that reading literature is a personal experience and so much more than an exercise in understanding story content, theme, and tone. That’s when we really “own” a story and it becomes real to us on a whole new level.

If you would like to enjoy these stories, see below by clicking READ MORE… This story takes place in my grandmother’s point of view. She sent me her memories of living in Germany during World War ll, and I compiled them into this story.

December 1944, German Province of Bohemia:

 It was a very cold winter, like always, with very deep snow. I was 6 years old, and my mother, my oldest sister, who was 16, my 12 year old brother and my baby sister and I had lived in a small village since 1942. We were forced to leave Offenbach because of the Nazi Party, which my father had refused to join. We all lived in an old bread baking room owned by a farmer. The room must have been about 20×20 feet, and its walls were lined with bunk beds with straw mattresses. The only other thing in the room was a very big built-in brick oven with a small crawlspace on top.

  Weihnachtszeit (Christmas) was fast approaching and we needed to find a Christmas tree. One day, my brother and I took our sled and a saw and went up a nearby mountain to cut down a small Christmas tree. We strapped the tree to the sled, climbed onto the tree, and rode down the steep mountain road back to the village. We were very poor, and it was war time, so we had no candles to put on the tree. I remember that we found some candle pieces and fastened them on the tree. In the late afternoon of Christmas eve, my mother and us kids walked through the snow to the next village to go to church. After church we walked back home and I remember it was a beautiful, clear night, and the moon made the snow glisten and sparkle like magic. When we got home, Christkind had come, and to my surprise left me the most beautiful doll house I had ever seen. The doll house was made out of a cardboard box, the furniture also was made out of cardboard and the little dolls out of yarn. My mother was able to get some lard and potatoes and we had the most wonderful feast of potato pancakes. Later on, I learned that my brother, who I adored, had made the doll house and the furniture for me.

  In January of 1945, we learned that the Russians were approaching fast and we had to leave. Again, it was in the middle of winter, it was freezing cold and the snow was falling heavily. After a long and difficult journey, we made it back to Offenbach sometime in the middle of late March 1945. When we got back, we discovered that most of the city had been bombed and destroyed. We were able to get refuge in a bomb shelter, but it didn’t last very long because my baby sister, who had just turned two years old at the time, became very ill. We left the shelter and moved into a small garden house which was only the size of a wooden shed. Again, we had to leave because of the American fighter planes that shot at everyone on the ground. We went underground deep down into the “felsenkellers”, which were wine cellars that had been owned by my grandfather. We stayed there with a lot of other people until we heard screaming outside of “The American Soldiers are marching in!”.

The following years were by far the most difficult years. Because of the bombed out houses, we had no clothing and very little ration for food.

  Fast forward to December of 1956.  

I was 18 now, and my future husband and I arrived in New York City on the 22nd of December in 1956. We arrived by ship, which was a very small liberty ship that was on its last voyage and going to the scrap yard. We were on that ship for almost two weeks during terrible storms, and I was sick the whole way.

  After only a few months of living in the states, I soon came to the realization that America was not the land of milk and honey that I had been told about. Traveling through many states I saw so much poverty, and the children were starving and in rags. To this day, I think that a lot of today’s children are worse off than I was, because they have to see how the other side lives. Children in America today should not have to go to bed hungry, with no food over the weekend (if they are fed at school), and no shoes or a shelter over their head. Children always end up being the victims of war and poverty. My wish for the future is that no one in the world has to endure war, poverty and most of all being hungry.