A Day No Pigs Would Die
by Robert Newton Peck
It's easy to underestimate Rob Peck. A country boy through and through, Rob seems to have no friends, no real life outside his family, and—let's face it—no clue about a lot of the things that most kids take for granted. He's our narrator, and from the book's first line, we realize that he doesn't even talk like most other people do. Who is this kid, anyway?
Just a Poor Boy
Okay, so it's pretty easy to see Rob as just a sad, strange kid who has nothing in common with most of us. After all, he lives on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, his family practices an religion that you may not have even heard of, and the very best thing that's ever happened to him is getting a pig as a gift.
Pretty odd, right?
As we get to know Rob a little better, though—as we watch him go through all the troubles he faces in the course of the book—we might start to see him a little differently. Sure, he's had a pretty limited experience of life so far; he's never been farther from home than the small town of Learning, where he attends classes in the one-room schoolhouse. But on the other hand, we see him do things that most city folks couldn't hope to be able to handle. An example? How about the matter-of-fact description he gives us of how he kills and then guts a squirrel to get nutmeats for his mother's chocolate cake:
Holding his back legs, I swung his body against the trunk of a sweet gum tree. His spine cracked, and he was dead.
Back on the kitchen stoop, I took a knife and cut open his belly. I was right careful not to cut the paunch. Removing the warm, wet sack, I brought it into the kitchen, and washed it under the sink pump. (12.29-30)
Well, then. That's some pretty tough stuff, and Rob does it without batting an eyelash.
A Boy of Circumstance
So maybe Rob has some things going for him after all. He can be tough and practical when he needs to be, and he approaches the world around him thoughtfully. He's also a sensitive kid, as we can tell from his moments of self-reflection and from, for instance, the quiet scene where he and Papa watch the sunset (7.28-30).
Not too different from the rest of us, huh? And think about—he swears when he's upset, he wants things he can't have, he even gets a D in English. Take away the existence of the Interweb, and you'd probably be pretty excited about getting a pig, too.
Which is to say that a lot of who Rob is is determined by his circumstances. We know that Rob hasn't had a lot of material comforts in his life. His clothes are all homemade and even the gum he chews is homemade. He may not be a perfect kid, but who is?
All By Myself
The very first time we meet Rob, he's on the run from a schoolmate who's been teasing him: "During recess," he tells us, "[the schoolmate had] pointed at my clothes and made sport of them. Instead of tying into him, I'd turned tail and run off" (1.2). Poor Rob. We get the sense that this may not be the first time Rob's dealt with this kind of problem, either. It's easy to see how he could be the victim of bullies—he probably sticks out like a sore thumb, what with his plain clothes and his earnest, serious upbringing.
This kid is definitely an outsider.
And it's not just Rob, either. Everyone in his family is basically an outsider. Their religion, their poverty, their clothing—everything about them marks them as different from most of their neighbors, and most of the other people in Learning.
So why does this matter? Well, one way that writers show us who their characters are is by showing us their relationships to other people. Just imagine if you didn't have any friends your age. How would that affect you? How do you think it might affect Rob?
A Boy and His Papa
Rob's isolation may be one reason he's so close to his Papa. That, and the fact that his dad is the absolute best. Even though he may not have friends at school, Rob can always count on Papa to listen to his worries and offer up some sage old-dude advice. And although Papa isn't shy about telling Rob when he's messed up, it's pretty clear that Papa loves Rob and wants only the best for him.
After Pinky's death, Rob tells us that Papa "looked down at me and then looked away. With his free arm he raked the sleeve of his work shirt across his eyes. It was the first time I ever seen him do it" (14.35). Papa's sad for Pinky, sure, but we get the feeling that those tears are more for Rob than they are for the pig.
A Boy and His Pig
Speaking of the pig, how 'bout that Pinky? Before this little lady came along, Rob never really had anything of his own. And Pinky's not just the only thing that's ever really belonged to him—she's also his best friend, making up for all the human companionship he's never had.
So when (spoiler alert) Rob helps Papa butcher Pinky, in a way, he's turning his back on all of those good feelings of belonging and friendship that he found with Pinky. He's returning himself to his own isolation. Right?
But at the same time, we know that—in the logic of the book, at least—Rob is taking a painful but necessary step toward "manhood." (Dun dun dun.) In a way, stepping up to do what has to be done is what makes Rob a full member of the community. It's how he finds a place, at the end of the story, among the farmers and neighbors who come to Papa's funeral to celebrate both Papa's life and Rob's new manhood.
So what does it finally mean that Rob has to give up Pinky? What do you think?Rob Peck's Timeline