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Proud Lineage: Willa Cather and Margaret Laurence CLARA THOMAS Margaret Laurence was born in 1926. She grew up in south-western Manitoba, and four of her works, The Stone Angel (1964L A Jest of God (1966), The Fire-Dwellers (1969), and A Bird in the House (1970), stem froma prairie town she calls Manawaka, its people and the land around it.Willa Cather was born in 1875. She grew up in Nebraska, and two of hernovels, 0 Pioneers (1913) and My Antonia (1918), are rooted there, ina little western town she called Hanover, then Black Hawk, and in the prairiecountry surrounding it. The idea of the west and its settling has been pervasive and very powerful in the minds and the imaginations of Canadians of my and earliergenerations. Its millions of waiting acres were the golden key to Confederation, fresh opportunity for generations of Canadians and for tens of thousands of European immigrants. In The Long Journey, Jack Warwick has demonstrated the potency of "the north" in the minds and imaginations of French Canadians; for us, I think, uthe west" has had ananalagously powerful imaginative presence. There is no possible nationalistic separation between the prairie novels of Willa Cather and the experiences of Canadians - in the areas which concerned her, there are no borders. Certainly Leon Edel and E. K. Brown,originally Canadian Westerners, must have felt this, for together they wrote her biography. And now, her heroines, Alexandra Bergson and Antonia Shimerda, have been joined by Margaret Laurence's Hagar Currie and Rachel and Stacey Cameron. These five women live through four generations of our past and in our present. They form a lineage and acycleof their own in North American literature. My Antonia's story is told by Jim Burden, a middle-aged, successful, but anxious and harassed corporation lawyer. Long ago, he had come, an orphan eight-year-old, to live with his grandparents on a prairie farm near Black Hawk. "I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that wehad gone over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction ... this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it ... between THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. II, NO. 1 1 SPRING 1971. that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night; here, I felt, what would be would be." Jim saw Antonia first one Sunday morning when he and his grandmother drove across the prairie uto make the acquaintances of our new Bohemian neighbors. We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chickenhouses and very little broken land." As the Burdens drove up, Antonia, her mother and her sister came to meet them out of a cave where they had been living, burrowed into a red earth bank. The children ran off to explore the wild lands. When the grown-ups had finished their visit, Mr. Shimerda came to find them and they went with him back to the dug-out. "Before I got into the wagon he took a book out of his pocket, opened it, and showed me a page with two alphabets, one English and the other Bohemian. He placed this book in my grandmother's hands, looked at her entreatingly, and said, with earnestness which I shall never forget, 'teach, teach my Antonia!'" No one had to teach Antonia what she needed to know to live with the land, or with people: she gave whatever of herself was needed, with an instinctive, untaught generosity. When Mr. Shimerda shot himself, lonely, worn-out and distracted by his battle with the land, Antonia worked in the fields like a man for her brother. Jim and Antonia roamed over the prairie wilderness together and gradually the land became less ominous, more benign to him. The Burdens moved to Black Hawk when Jim was in his mid-teens, and later, when Antonia came to town too, to work as a hired girl, he found again the pleasure and security in her friendship that he had felt as a child. One day they and two other...


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