There are I think only two viable canidates for the title of best American female author born in the 19th century, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Probably most people would place Wharton in first place and Will Cather second, but this is for sure up for debate.
Willa Cather (1873 to 1947-born Virginia, USA) is famous for novels about the lives of the first white settlers of Nebraska, mostly Scandinavians and people from eastern Europe. Her most famous works are O Pioneers!, My Antonio and Death Comes to the Archbishop. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for One of Ours.
I really liked My Antonio an awful lot. It is set in the American prairie state of Nebraska. It is my very first work by Willa Cather and I cannot for the life of me figure why I waited so long to read her.
(If you just want a plot summery for your home work you can check the Wikipedia article.)
I liked this novel for the way we see the central character Antonio develop from a pre-teenage girl into a mature woman with a husband and a family of ten children. The story is told through the eyes of Jim Burden who came to the fictional Nebraska town of Black Hawk on the same train that brought Antonia and her family. The characterizations are perfect. Cather does a wonderful job of letting us see the struggles of the early settlers of Nebraska, their trials and triumphs. She also lets us see the social structure of the community. We see what it was like to grown up in Nebraska in the pioneer days. There are also many descriptions of the natural beauty of the area, lots of references to flowers. The narrator, who seems in love with Antonia at times, goes on to college while she stays behind to work as a maid. He studies the classics and goes on to law school and material success. He never marries or has any children. In the final part of the book, simply brilliant in its execution, we skip ahead twenty years and Jim takes the train back from the big city to visit Antonia. The scene where he first meets her children really is great. The description of the life of Antonia and her husband are also wonderful.
There was something in the book I was puzzled or troubled by and I hope others who have read the book will give their opinion on it. In one section, set in the hotel, a blind musician, a descendant of slaves is portrayed in what seems almost a racist fashion. I wondered if I was taking this wrong but that is how it came across to me.
I highly recommend this book both for the sheer pleasure of reading it and for its value as a historic document. It is in the public domain and you can easily download it for free.
I plan to next read her O Pioneers! and some of her short stories.
Cather is considered to be a GLBT writer.
Please share your experience with Willa Cather with us.