Even though there are plenty of dry descriptions and blunt observations, they're often written in a tone that gives surprisingly poignant moments of observation about humanity. For example, when Tom and Polly Ann find the chests and drive to Billy-Bob's in the middle of the night, Tom puts his horse, Drew, in Billy-Bob's stable:
Tom found some oats in a bin, but they smelled stale and sour, so the old horse would have to go hungry until he got home. Tom told [Drew] he was sorry and left him standing there, probably philosophizing on the unreasonableness of people. (52.16)
This is actually a pretty funny quote. Think a 1900s version of a meme with a dog or cat grumbling about their owners.
But an old horse isn't the only character to get his philosophy on. Tom often gets "to thinking how queer some men could get to be" (49.8). Based on quotes like these, the text actually seems fascinated with people and their strange habits. It gives the idea that many fit into a certain "type," but everyone is also a little strange, or has their own little quirks.
These thoughtful asides can also take on sad or critical tones. For example, there's a sad sensitivity in the following passage of Birdy opening his Christmas present from Tom:
He folded the paper carefully and put it to one side for Polly Ann to use again if she was so minded, but the wool he wound in little circles just as carefully and put them in his pocket. Tom wondered what he planned to do with them but didn't want to ask. Early in March when he went to visit with Birdy one Sunday, he found that Birdy had made decorative nots out of each one and hung one in each of his two kitchen windows. There didn't seem any point in saying anything about them then, either. (18.9)
Birdy is an extremely capable worker, a resourceful man, and a guide for Tom, but he is also alone, with no family and not much money. His careful saving of the wool from his Christmas gift, perhaps to add a domestic touch to his kitchen or to remind him of the gift, tugs at the heartstrings.
As for the passages that are critical, those often come to show the difference between Tom's industriousness and the lazy, gluttonous ways of other men.
Overall, the tone comes across as one that carefully observes and reports human nature. You sometimes have to read carefully to find these gems amid the dry descriptions, but that seems to be part of the point: a close reader, like a close observer of the world, will find all kinds of interesting things.
Just by looking at the cover or reading the first line of Bert Breen's Barn, it's pretty easy to get the vibe that we're not in the twenty-first century. Bert Breen's Barn is the type of historical novel about completely ordinary people going about the tasks of day-to-day life in a bygone era. Tom is just a boy who does chores at home, works in a mill, and eventually builds a barn.
It may be just over a century ago (less, when the book came out in 1975), but it sure feels far away. A review of the book when it was published says: "The setting for the novel is less than a century ago, yet the way of life Mr. Edmonds describes could not be more foreign to the present time if he were a science-fiction writer portraying the remote past or imagining the remote future."
It's true that a whole lot has changed since the big 1-9-0-0 rolled around. The telephone is a strange new thing in the novel, fringed surreys and new wagons are the hot rides in town, and a boy of 13 can choose to go to work rather than go to school.
Those aspects of life were long outdated by the time of the novel's publication, but does that mean that Tom's story, his emotions, and the themes are not relatable or applicable across time? Are there aspects of Tom's story you can relate to despite the time differences? Or does the novel seem even weirder now that it's been almost another half-century since it was published?
Over the course of the novel, Tom changes from a boy watching his mother work into a young man who ably provides for his family. Plus, like with many coming-of-age books, Tom's story is full of firsts: first job, first experience with human mortality, first bank account, even a first time on a train. (There's no first kiss, but a first barn is almost as good.)
We get validation that Tom has grown and changed from multiple characters. At the end of the novel, Mr. Armond doesn't even recognize Tom when he goes to pay the balance on the barn. As Tom observes, "Having things happen bit by bit, you didn't realize how big the changes were" (63.9). Sounds like a coming-of-age statement to us.
Besides being fantastically alliterative and tough to say ten times fast, the title, Bert Breen's Barn, is pretty straightforward. This guy named Bert Breen once built a really sturdy barn. Our main character, Tom, gets it into his head that he'd like to move the barn to his place and make a better life for his family. And there you go.
The barn acts as Tom's primary motivation and as the central symbol throughout the novel (jump over to our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more on that), so why not name the book after it as well? Done and done.
The novel ends with Tom looking at the barn on his property. He remembers the first time he went to the barn with Birdy and how the Widow Breen had pointed her shotgun at him for nosing around:
The recollection was so vivid that he turned quickly to their own kitchen porch to be sure she was not standing on it, but she wasn't. It wasn't her barn now. It was his—absolutely. He didn't have to go around like a low-down Dolan any more. It came suddenly into his mind that the Widow Breen had told that to him long ago. (63.31)
Memory and the past are big issues in the novel (check out our "Themes" section), and these final lines emphasize the way that the past can feel like a very real force in the present. Tom even has to check over his shoulder to make sure a moment from the past is, in fact, passed. Which (duh) it is.
But the power of the past is still there: the Widow Breen isn't pointing a shotgun at Tom, but she did point him toward his future. Tom and his family aren't weighed down anymore by the shame and hurt of their no-good relatives. That's in the past, too.
Bert Breen's Barn is a regional novel. That means it has a very strong sense of place and that the place ties into the novel's events, as well as into how characters think and act.
Tom's story takes place in upstate New York, in and around the town of Boonville at the turn of the century, when people were still using wagons to get around, saying things like "vamoose," and clamoring for the hot new technology: landline telephones. While Tom works at a mill in town and several other scenes occur at stores, the bank, a lawyer's office, and a hotel, much of the story takes place in the countryside outside of town, where both the weather and the terrain can make life difficult for those who live there.
Boonville is teeny-tiny, with a population of around 3,300 when the novel is set. Plus, people in the area tended to be spread out because of the region's valleys, swamps, forests, hills, brooks, good farmland, and bad farmland. There's the sense that the sparse population, varied geography, and the sometimes challenging weather test people, bringing out both the inherent resourcefulness in humanity as well as the inherent crazy. More than once in the novel, Tom "[gets] to thinking how queer some folks could be" (49.8) while he's driving through the countryside.
Moreover, the setting gives the feeling that it's up to each individual to get by. There are no kindly environment fairies in Boonville that are going to rain down blissful weather, good crops, and healthy livestock—let alone the latest version of the iPhone. Whether walking through a snowstorm or trying to scrape together a living, it's not easy.
Still, even though the environment challenges Tom, he knows it's ridiculous to waste time and energy wishing bad conditions away. The bad weather is not the work of evil hobgoblins, nor is good weather the work of magical unicorns. Both are part of life, and the folks in the book have got to figure out how to live with it, no matter how much they wish there were unicorns. The isolated, dynamic, and sometimes challenging environment hammers that point home throughout the book.
The plot of Bert Breen's Barn is very straightforward: boy meets barn, boy wants barn, boy works hard to get that barn.
Oddly enough, the simplicity is actually one of the things that might make the book a little tough for current readers who are used to faster pacing. It can seem like a bit of slog at times, but that's part of the point of the book: reaching a goal can be a long process.
Since it's a historical novel, the book also has some now-outdated vocab like "vamoose" and "truckle" (both of which are pretty fun to say), and it's chock-full of technical-sounding construction and farm-life terms like stanchion, sill, girder, and joist. Still, it's pretty easy to get the gist even if you don't know exactly what all the terms mean, and there are some handy barn diagrams at the beginning to help us visualize.
Besides, if you ever want to build your own barn, this book will give you a jump on the lingo.
Okay, so this novel won't exactly take you on an action-packed thrill ride, nor will it have your sides splitting with witty banter. Many of the passages, in fact, contain detailed descriptions of the setting or technical explanations of Tom's work. Just take a look at one of the many passages explaining construction on the barn:
The beams to connect the bents were next to put in place. Men raised them until their tenons entered the mortises in the posts. A rope from the end of each was passed over the tie beam and two men on the ground took hold of the end, keeping the beam horizontal to meet the next bent when it was raised. (47.1)
Bents? Tenons? Mortises? Ummm…
Unless you have a solid construction background, you might not know (or care) what words like that have to do with anything. (In case you happen to be curious, here's a visual.) The text drops these kinds of words like it's no big deal, demonstrating a fluency in working-life vocab that's pretty foreign to most of us.
There are also several passages that don't necessarily advance the plot or include especially exciting action, but give a historical sense of what life was like in that time and place. For example, when Ackerman & Hook Mill gets a telephone:
"You mean to tell me that we would have a mess of people hooked in on our line? Listening in to what I say? Or you say, for that matter, George?"
"No, that's when you have a party line. You don't have to call the operator to get someone else on your line. With us it would be better maybe, to have our own line."
"Then how do you get ahold of someone else?" Erlo demanded.
"You turn the crank one ring," George explained.
"That gets the operator on your line. She says, 'Number please.' You give her the number of the person you want to call." (15.8-11)
Operators and cranks sound pretty far-out in a world where smartphones rule the world. But hey, they had to start somewhere. This passage shows what learning about a telephone for the first time might have been like. Other scenes like the inquest into Mrs. Breen's death and Tom's experience at the bank serve the same purpose: providing glimpses into upstate New York life in the early 1900s.
Amid all the nitty-gritty farming, construction, and historical detail, there are moments that express emotion, but even those passages are often presented in a straightforward way, often with a restraint characteristic of Edmonds' dry writing style. For example, when Tom gets the dream-crushing news that the Breen place has been sold, we're told he felt "bitter about it" (32.17), and then:
The rest of the day at the mill didn't mean anything. Afterwards he couldn't remember who had come in or what anybody had said, and when it came time to start home he found he hadn't eaten his lunch. He tossed the sandwiches into the river when he was crossing Fisk Bridge so Polly Ann wouldn't know […] (32.19).
Poor Tommy Boy. We don't get long broody passages or outbursts of passion, but a thrown-away sandwich is about as tragic as it gets in this world.
Having your own land and being your own boss are the cornerstones of the American Dream. And the cornerstone of land is a barn. And the cornerstone of a barn is…a cornerstone.
Basically, farms and barns are great symbols for the American Dream because they enable you to live off the sweat of your brow. Remember George and Lennie's dream from Of Mice and Men? It's to get a little house, a couple of acres, a cow, some pigs and rabbits, and to "live off the fatta the lan.'"
In some ways, Tom's story is kind of a way-less-depressing, coming-of-age version of Of Mice and Men, also using the barn/farm symbol as the emblem of the American Dream. Tom's ultimate goal is to have a farm that turns enough profit to support his family and to show the world that he's made something of himself. The first step to having a good farm is having a good barn, because that is where farmers house their animals and equipment. He's really got this worked out.
While Tom is working on getting the Breen barn, the barn represents his hopes and dreams. Once he owns it, it continues to symbolize his aspirations for the future, but it also symbolizes the hard work he's already put in and the success he's attained.
For someone who's never actually in the novel, Bert Breen certainly makes an impression by way of his stuff. His barn is the strongest symbol in the book, but his money comes up a fair bit, too. That mystery money has got everyone curious for most of the book; those nasty Flanchers in particular are relentless, tearing through the house and yard in search of the money.
None of them find it. But Tom, using a bit of deducting reasoning and a late-night search, eventually does.
Critics Alethea Helbig and Agnes Regan Perkins argue "although the treasure hunt contributes suspense, it strains credulity and weakens the theme that hard work and determination can result in success" (Dictionary of American Children's Fiction, 1960-1984, Greenwood Press, 1986, pg. 51).
Valid point, scholars, but we're going to put another theory out there: the chest is a symbol of the rewards of hard work. Tom gets the money as a direct result of his careful observation, thoughtfulness, and tireless work.
What do you think? Is the money an important symbol of Tom's success, or is it an unnecessary narrative distraction?
Chapter 13 is all about Tom's scary three-mile walk home from the mill, in the dark, in a raging snowstorm. The snow is a little nod to the regionalism thing going on in the book. With an average of 190+ inches of snow each year, Boonville is ranked the sixth snowiest spot in the U.S. and has proclaimed itself to be the "Snow Capital of the East."
So the snow is a symbol of Boonville, but it's more than that, too. Tom's trek through the snowstorm is a symbol of the power of determination and self-reliance.
In the storm, there is the very real threat that Tom could get stuck and freeze to death; he's even heard stories about that kind of thing happening. In addition to being afraid, Tom is also mad and frustrated:
He couldn't see a drift until he got into it and started floundering through, which made it hard to hold the [Christmas] packages safe up under his coat. Each time it happened he became more upset and angry. He wanted to punish the drift, kick it, hurt it some way, but there wasn't any way to hurt snow unless maybe by melting it. The notion of having to melt his way all the way from town to home was absurd enough to almost start him laughing. He felt better, and for a while it was easier to plow ahead. (13.8)
Kicking snowdrifts is about as futile as it gets. But it shows that, even though he's angry and scared and having weird urges to punish the snow, Tom realizes that it's impossible—even absurd—to change the weather. All he can do is rely on his knowledge and skill to get him home safely.
That gets us thinking about the overall meaning of the novel. Tom is saddled with some tough life circumstances, but he can't change them, just like he can't melt the snow. However, he can use his skills to get himself out of the bad conditions. It's a lesson in good old self-reliance. Don't get upset, work your tail off, and eventually things will get better.
Not only does the novel personify Drew, Tom's horse, as an observant philosopher (see his "Character" page); it sometimes goes in the opposite direction, with people being described through animal imagery. Just consider these examples:
Why all the animal imagery? Is the novel trying to say that people are like wild animals?
Not really. Instead, the imagery demonstrates Tom's scope of knowledge. People describe things using the vocab and the frame of reference that they have. Tom is a country bumpkin, familiar with the natural world. In the rural area he's from, it's very likely that Tom has encountered far more animals than people, so it makes sense that he would go to those images when he needs to convey a description. In that way, this imagery helps contribute to the regional feel of the novel as well.
The majority of the novel is from Tom's perspective and in Tom's "present." That is, we experience events when Tom does and we get the same information as Tom at the same time as he does. The narration straightforwardly conveys Tom's thoughts to us, which makes us feel like we're getting a genuine view of his character. There's no sense that the narrator is withholding, lying, or tricking us. This bluntness can be humorous. Take the following example:
Mr. Vance [the undertaker] was not talkative. He took big bites from his sandwich and was done with the first before Tom was halfway through his own, and finishing his fourth when Tom was only starting in on his third. [….] Tom thought that dealing so much with dead persons must cause a man to have an appetite for food. (24.7)
It can also be poignant:
He had begun milking when Polly Ann came in, her cheeks bright from the cold, and he saw suddenly that she was a pretty woman, as Erlo Ackerman had remembered her being as a girl. Right then he knew that taking out the full two dollars and a quarter [for Christmas gifts] was the right thing to do. (10.20)
Whether the effect is funny (dealing with dead bodies = yum, sandwiches?) or sentimental (my mom's so pretty), we always get the sense that it's Tom's view in earnest.
While we're usually peeping through Tom's perspective, there are times when the narration zooms out of the present moment or out of Tom's point of view. This happens for the whole first chapter when we get the backstory on the Breens, the Hannaberrys, and Nob Dolan, but it happens occasionally even once we get into Tom's point of view.
For an example of a shift out of the "present," take a look at this line:
Time came later, when, remembering those afternoons, Tom thought they must have been the happiest time in Birdy's life. (43.2)
And here's an example of a shift away from Tom's perspective to someone else's:
[Birdy] had gone back to the mow floor. He stood in the middle of it looking up at the timbers, back together in their proper shape, the way he had helped fix them in the first place. A long time, that was. He wondered what Bert Breen would think to see them down here. Or Amelie, either.
Then he saw Tom and Mr. Hook approaching him, and he came down the ladder. (48.6-7)
These shifts into the third-person omniscient (versus third-person limited, with a window only into Tom's thoughts) make us feel like we are watching Tom's life from afar and gaining a bigger picture than Tom has access to. That doesn't necessarily make us feel less connected to him. In fact, it kind of endears him to us more because it shows us that Tom is doing his best to carve out his spot in a wide world.
Before Tom was ever born, there was Bert Breen, who builds a nice barn up on a hill and is more than happy to live out his life away from most people. The word "hermit" might come to mind. Plus, he's very secretive about his money and doesn't keep it in a bank, even though everyone knows he must have money because how else would he buy up property in the area? When he dies, his widow continues to live on the property, but she keeps up the secret game where the money is concerned.
Among the few people the Breens interacted with were the Hannaberrys. Chick Hannaberry, Tom's grandfather, was a careless good-timer who left the task of scraping money together largely to his daughters, including Polly Ann, Tom's mother. Polly Ann marries Nob Dolan, who owned a small farm, but he too began leaving all the work to Polly Ann, and then he disappeared altogether after five years of marriage. Men aren't really looking so great at the exposition stage of the story. Polly Ann works tirelessly at hard manual labor to provide for her three children. This makes a strong impression on Tom. And that right there's the setup for his big dreams.
Tom wants to build a better life for his family. He talks to Birdy Morris about it and he gets the idea that he'll need a better barn to create the life he wants. For example, the Breen barn. That's where the title comes in. Birdy takes Tom up to see the Breen barn, where the Widow Breen reads cards to tell him his future. She says that Tom will quit school, get some money, and later on, get a whole bunch more money. Sounds like a good future.
Tom wants to speed up the process, so he quits school, gets a job as mill hand, and saves everything he can from his modest salary. He spends money only to help Polly Ann with family expenses, to buy supplies to fix up their house, and to purchase Christmas gifts. No candy bars and comic books for this kid. Meanwhile, he keeps an eye on the Breen property, and when the Widow Breen dies, Tom plans to buy it from the county—until Mr. Armond buys it first. But Tom makes Mr. Armond an offer, and he accepts. Woohoo!
But the work isn't done yet. Birdy and Tom work through the spring and summer to take the barn down, move the lumber, and rebuild it on the Dolan property. Tom still has his job at the mill, which means they have to do the barn work in the evening and on Sundays. Sheesh—that sure puts nine-to-fivers to shame. But diligent little Tom is ready and willing to go hardcore for the sake of his dream (with a little encouragement from Birdy).
Once Tom and Birdy get the barn taken apart and moved and lay the foundation at the Dolan place, it's time for a barn-raising. That means a big party and also a lot of work: at least eighteen men and hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches. But the barn-raising goes off without a hitch. Tom decides that all the excitement from the barn-raising creates the perfect cover for him and Polly Ann to go up to the Breen place and get Bert's money, which Tom has figured out is hidden under the part of the barn floor that he hasn't moved yet. They sneak out at night, taking back trails so that they won't attract attention, especially from the Flanchers. Tension builds as they creep through the darkness and begin taking up the floorboards. Once they get the chests to the wagon, Tom sees a wagon coming up the road toward him. It's the Flanchers! But Tom and Polly Ann get away safely with more money than the family has ever had.
They take the chests to Billy-Bob's and count it: more than $9,000. Billy-Bob meets Tom at the bank the next day to set up a savings account, and also suggests that he set one up for Birdy, since he's been so much help. Tom spends some of the money to finish his barn, and then Tom and Birdy take care of the last piece of business on the Breen property: they burn the old house down and fill in the hole where Bert had hidden his chests of money.
Time to plan for the future. Tom tells Mr. Hook he plans to go into farming. Mr. Hook helps him find a team of horses to buy, and Tom also buys a new wagon, both of which he'll need to take his next steps toward building a paying farm. Oh, and the Flanchers are arrested for trespassing and assault after a fight broke out on the Breen property right after Tom and Polly Ann dug up the chests. Tom doesn't have to worry about them or the possibility of revenge anymore. Whew.
Don't panic. Tom doesn't die. (Get it? "Buying the farm" is a euphemism for dying.) In the novel's conclusion, Tom goes back to Mr. Armond's to pay the remaining $25 he owes on the barn. Tom drives up in his spiffy new wagon and suit, and Mr. Armond hardly recognizes him or his mother. Polly Ann gets a real thrill going up to the place with her successful son, a total change from the times she had to go up there to sell berries for her father. When Tom arrives back home, he admires his barn and realizes he has attained the dream that once seemed so farfetched.