Between the Lines Book Club: Race in My Antonia

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines Book Club! Our book this month is My Antonia, by Willa Cather. We’ll be meeting to discuss the book on September 22, 2018, at Arden Dimick Library, at 10:30AM.

Most of the characters in My Antonia are “other” in some way. The Shimerda’s are strange to the Burden family, with their outpourings of emotion and their dried mushrooms. The Hired Girls all come from recent immigrant families, and are both admired and shunned by the area’s more well-established residents.

In Book 2, Chapter 7, Jim meets a blind, Black piano player, known as Blind d’Arnault. Jim admires d’Arnaults’s independence (he “refuses to be led”) and his musical ability. However, despite expressing admiration for d’Arnault, Jim describes him in racist and stereotypical terms.

This led me to think of the following questions:

1. How can we read between the lines, and how much does Cather intend for us to do so? Does Martha hide her mixed-race son because he’s “ugly”, or because she’s afraid he’ll be sold and/or she’ll be punished for the possibility that she was raped by her male owner? Is d’Arnaut really “docile” or is this simply what people around him like to believe? Does he retain a strong sense of personality separate from what we hear Jim say about him? Do Cather and Jim see d’Arnault the same way?

2. Is d’Arnault autistic? He is slow to talk, rocks back and forth constantly, and is a musical savant. How is he portrayed in contrast to Antonia’s disabled brother?

3. How does Cather’s description of d’Arnault differ from her proper “Americans,” the shrill and canny Shimerdas, the morose Russians Pavel and Peter, the ethereal scholar Gaston Cleric, and other characters?

4. What is the purpose of this passage?

5. A lot of readers and critics seem to ignore this passage altogether. How should we treat passages like this in older fiction (My Antonia was first published in 1918). How does the passage affect your opinion of the book overall?

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