As winter descends, Jim turns to various indoor amusements, playing at charades and dress-up and dancing with Ántonia and the Harlings in the evenings. Ántonia tells the Harlings a story about a man who, for no apparent reason, dove into a threshing machine and killed himself. The story upsets Nina Harling, but the memories of threshing time make Mrs. Harling homesick for the country.
In March, with snow still covering the landscape, excitement fills Black Hawk when Samson d’Arnault, a blind, black pianist, comes to town. Jim makes his way to the Boys’ Home, where d’Arnault and his manager are staying. He enters the parlor to find a raucous scene, a full house listening to music and gossiping away. Eventually, d’Arnault plays a concert of old plantation standards to an enthusiastic audience. During one of his numbers, d’Arnault senses the patter of women dancing in a neighboring room. A door opens to reveal Ántonia, Lena, and two of their friends dancing among themselves. After a bit of hesitation and plenty of encouragement from the men, the girls come into the parlor and join the party, dancing until d’Arnault’s manager shuts the piano. After the party breaks up, Jim and Ántonia walk home together, excited and restless.
Once Cather settles the Burdens comfortably in Black Hawk, her focused treatment of the landscape gives way to a scrutiny of the townspeople. She introduces several new characters in a very short time span, and, in turn, Jim’s narrative becomes less purposefully sequential and more episodic and anecdotal. Whereas Cather earlier presents an idyllic portrait of a group of people overwhelmed by a place, the shift to Black Hawk is mirrored by a reduction of emphasis on the power and importance of the land and an increased emphasis on the individuals in the town. In a world of finance and industry, people have a more businesslike and economic relationship to each other, as epitomized by Frances Harling’s utilitarian approach to her townspeople.
Another major contrast between the farm and the town is the emphasis that each environment places on gender roles. In the countryside, Jim is free to be domestic and sensitive in the company of women. But Jim’s arrival in town forces him to recognize his social identity as a male. In adjusting to school and his classmates, he seems to become “quite another boy,” learning to fight, swear, and tease the girls. The pressure to assume gendered behavior is equally acute on Ántonia, who gradually begins to make the shift from tomboyish farmhand to polished town girl. Lena Lingard also changes her costume, trading in her tattered farm rags for the smarter costumes of a dressmaker. Cather’s title for Book II is “The Hired Girls,” which serves as a reminder of the important connection among occupation, place, and sexuality, for both the young women and young men. This new pressure denotes another shift in the main characters’ lives: just as Book i describes life in the country and Book II describes life in town, Book I describes the characters as children, while Book II describes them as young adults. The move to town comes with a new shift to more urban, grown-up interests, such as the dancing that takes place in Chapter VII.
Because the farm is associated with the past and the town with the present, Jim and Ántonia become nostalgic for their former existence in the country. Even Lena, who is most keen on the lures of the town life, confesses her nostalgia for her rural family life. While telling Jim one of her wild tales of adventure, she admits to him of her rustic family, “I get awful homesick for them, all the same.”
Although the shift from farm to town marginalizes the landscape, the harsh climate of the Nebraska prairie continues to dominate the flow of the narrative. Jim finds the winter a nearly unen-durable penalty for the pleasantness of summer. When Ántonia relates the story of a tramp who committed suicide by leaping into a thresher, the mystery for the Harlings is not in the tramp’s choice to kill himself but that he did so in such a lovely season as late summer. It is as if the Harlings conceive of pleasant weather as a boon from their often unforgiving environment not to be taken for granted.