Monday, October 11, 2010

In the midst of political anti-immigration fervor, listening to The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and reading My Antonia by Willa Cather within a few months of each other gave me a chance to reflect on the contribution of the immigrant and/or pioneer in the life of the United States. Opportunity, wide open spaces, freedom, independence and fortitude are common themes in the two novels, separated by almost a hundred years.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls (2005) is a fascinating story of the Walls family—with an alcoholic, eccentric father and an equally eccentric and artistic mother, the family faces life as a wondrous adventure. The adventure might be home in the Arizona desert or in a decrepit shanty on a West Virginian hillside, yet the family remains strong and resilient despite the laissez-faire attitude of the parents. The pioneering spirit lives as the family goes from West to East—Arizona and California to Battle Mountain, Nevada, and Welch, West Virginia. Walls relays her very unconventional childhood with matter-of-fact verve. This is a fascinating story that proves life is stranger than fiction, vividly narrated by Julia Gibson.

My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918) is one of Cather’s best-known Nebraska tales following O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915). Told from the viewpoint of Antonia Shimerda’s childhood friend, Jim Burden, it recounts the story of newly arrived immigrants from Europe—Czechs, Swedes, Norwegians—“looked down upon for their poverty but lonely for a culture which was, in many cases, richer than their American neighbors.” Antonia and Jim are from different worlds—Antonia is a new immigrant only able to say "We go Black Hawk, Nebraska” and Jim is a Virginia orphan sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Yet, love of the land and a simple, honest way of life is dear to both of them. They find more similarities than differences in their lives and retain a fondness for each other throughout the years. The introduction to the book mentioned that it shows “a communal sense of America as an admixture of rich heritages.”

In this time of political and social polarization over illegal immigrants in the United States, these books offer a reminder of the richness that “different” people bring to our lives. In sharing our stories in truth or fiction, we can realize how truly alike we all are.

Thanks to Bonnie Y. for the reviews!

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