Study Guide

Bert Breen's Barn Quotes

  • Men and Masculinity

    Chapter 1

    [Chick] and his family just scratched a living. His wife was dead, but he had five daughters and all summer he had them out picking berries or hunting ginseng while there was still a market for it. He raised some chickens, kept a stringy little cow that gave milk in small amounts for a few months whenever she happened to have a calf. None of them had much more clothes that those they carried on their backs, but Chick seemed a happy man. He was free to do whatever he fancied, which was mostly nothing, and there was no rent to pay on any of those tumbledown houses. (1.4)

    Tom comes from a line of men who leave the hard work of life up to others while they do as they please. This is the model of masculinity Tom works against in the book. He doesn't want to be this kind of man, and it's hard to blame him.

    Nob Dolan proved to be as shiftless as [Polly Ann's] father had been, and almost right away she was working to keep her new home together, just as she had tried to do in the Hannaberry family. As soon as Nob found out how well she could manage […] he started leaving everything to her. He didn't just go off fishing or hunting rabbits the way her father had. He spent his time circulating among the bars and taverns, using up his money while his small buildings ran down. He turned out to be just about a total no-good. (1.18)

    Like father, like husband? In this case, that about sums it up. But on top of rambling around while others do his work, Nob is off drinking, too. If you pay close attention, men's drinking habits are mentioned several times, and it's not exactly presented as the best of habits. It's usually linked to a rowdy, lazy, or self-indulgent type of male character. Say nope to the Nob.

    Chapter 2

    He was still too small to hold the [milking] pail between his knees. He had to set it on the barn floor. But he would bore with his forehead into the soft side of the cow and feel as if he had taken a step towards being a man. (2.8)

    Even as an eight-year-old boy, Tom is already on a path to manhood markedly different than his father's and grandfather's. He feels that work is an important part of being a man—or really a human, since it's his mom who shows him the ropes. His dad and gramps…not so into that.

    Chapter 8

    "Nob's my pa, but we ain't seen anything of him in eleven years. We get along without him. He wasn't much use afore he left, anyway." Then he straightened his back, facing both men. "And if it comes to that my grampa wasn't much for doing work, either. Ma's the only one who's ever worked hard in our family. I figure it's time I got a job, too." (8.28)

    Way to show 'em what's what, Tom. When Tom asks for a job at the mill, he makes it clear that he's nothing like the other men in his family, and he points out that he's learned about hard work and responsibility from his mom. If you thought those qualities were all for men, this book tells you otherwise. Does that mean the book is saying that Tom's mother displays certain masculine qualities in her character? Or is it suggesting that some qualities are good to have regardless of gender?

    Chapter 9

    He felt as if he belonged there at Ackerman and Hook's mill. He had never had the feeling of belonging in a place with grown men before. (9.16)

    Tom had very few male influences in his life before he started working at the mill. Besides visits with Birdy and occasional interactions with male neighbors, Tom has spent most of his childhood with his mom and his sisters. He didn't seem to mind, but the new sense of belonging is an extra boost on his path.

    Chapter 27

    Thinking about just where he would set [the barn] and how it was going to look when he had the frame up and the siding on made him take a new look at their house, and he saw for the first time how shabby and run-down looking it was, with shingles missing from the roof, and here and there split clapboards, the front steps sagging, and the paint so nearly weathered away it was hard to tell what color the house had been in the first place. He made his mind up that before he put up the barn he would have to get the house in shape, and that was what he worked at during that summer, outside of his hours at Ackerman and Hook's. (27.2)

    This passage directly contrasts Tom with his father. Tom's father never made any repairs on the house. In fact, Tom has to buy all the supplies to do the repairs because there are none around from his father's days there. What a lazybones. Tom sees that a good property owner—and in this case, a good man—should take care of his property, have pride in what is his, and work hard, even if that means pulling nights and weekends after his day job.

    Chapter 47

    The men helped themselves to stacks of sandwiches, to hunks of cheese, to cherry or blueberry or apple pie, and drank quantities of coffee and switchel. [….] They kept in separate groups, the lumberjacks sitting by themselves in the shade of the house, the farmers under the mow floor. The Moucheaud brothers circulated from one group to the other. Working at the feed mill and living in Forestport made them parties of both worlds. Tom, feeling himself the host, tried to do the same, but he felt shy among the lumberjacks and found little to say to them. (47.7)

    In rural places in the early 1900s, nothing brought men together like a good ol' barn-raising. Finding himself in a crowd of different types of men, Tom's not 100% comfortable in his own skin yet, and he feels a little awk around the burly lumberjacks. But he's at least starting to get out there and circulate in their world.

    Chapter 54

    Old Sol had been on his way to Forestport, having run out of gin, and the Flanchers damned near ran him and his stump-hocked little black mare into the ditch. They'd kept right on, taking the fork up to the sand flats, and Sol was upset enough so he turned into Armond's drive and stopped to tell Parker Munsey about it. He told Joe Hemphill later on at McGee's bar in Forestport he thought everybody on the river road must have been crazy that night. (54.10)

    All of this goes down the night after Tom's barn-raising and just after he has been to the Breen place to retrieve the hidden money. Tom's long, hard day of honest work is a serious contrast to the shenanigans of men out at night drinking and stirring up trouble. Tom is not on the path to being that kind of man, and the novel makes it pretty clear that that's a good thing.

    Chapter 61

    Mr. Hook walked in and said, "Al, I've brought my friend who might be interested in buying that team."

    Al turned around and got out of his chair. He shook hands with Mr. Hook, who said, "This is Tom Dolan. Al Rathbun."

    They shook hands, too. (61.2-4)

    Tom's come a long way from being a nervous kid asking for a job. Now he shakes hands in a business exchange the same way Mr. Hook does. At other points in the novel, Tom has admired Mr. Hook's confident way of dealing with other men. This passage shows that Tom is starting to get to that point, too.

    Tom admired the way Mr. Hook nodded, crossed the barroom to the indicated door, knocked, and walked right in. Joe Hemphill was sitting at one end of the dining table and opposite were the Coroner and the Sheriff. Tom could tell which was which because the Sheriff wore a gray flannel shirt and had his badge pinned to a breast pocket of it. Only it seemed to Tom as if a small, ordinary like him ought to have changed jobs with the big fat man beside him. Dr. Considine [the coroner] had gray hair and red cheeks and wore a dark-blue suit with a heavy watch chain that barely made it from one pocket of his waistcoat to the other. If he wasn't the biggest man Tom had ever seen, he was the fattest. (23.9)

    During the inquiry into Mrs. Breen's death, Tom gets a look at several types of men he's never dealt with before: the clerk at the hotel, the Coroner, the sheriff, and later, the undertaker. These dudes give Tom a glimpse of lifestyles he's never witnessed before. A poor country boy would have no experience with a life that provides extra time and money to indulge in food and drink as much as Dr. Considine does.

    Mr. Massey introduced Birdy to them.

    "Birdy Morris is the man who built this barn in the first place. For Bert Breen, up on the sand flats by the Forestport line. He's helped Tom Dolan take it down and bring it here. I'd say he was the man to be caller for us."

    Lumberjacks didn't step to one side for anybody, but they recognized boss material when they met it, and though Birdy didn't look like much, with his humped should and all, they agreed he ought to be their man. (46.16-18)

    There's more to being a man than brute strength and looking like a Disney prince. There's "boss material." In this case, it defies the odds: Birdy has a physical deformity and he's also old and poor, so he's not exactly your typical bodybuilder (or even barn-builder). But, he has knowledge and experience, which the other men easily recognize. That's the kind of man they want as their leader. What do you think "boss material" looks like today, when it isn't limited to men anymore?

  • Isolation

    Chapter 1

    But there she was, a young woman not yet twenty-eight, living alone. In some ways having a man around, even if he is no good, is better than having none. (1.19)

    Polly Ann's husband leaves her alone with three small children after five years of marriage. Despite what the text observes here, Polly Ann does just fine without Nob, and later on in the book, she is complimented for having raised a "fine son" (63.28). What do you think? Is it better to have someone around who's no good rather than have no one at all?

    Chapter 9

    Pretty soon Tom learned that [Ox's] real name was Marvin Hubbard. He had two children, grown up and gone from home, and his wife was poorly. When he wasn't in the mill, he spent his time looking after her. Perhaps that was why he got to talking more and more with Tom and pretty soon having his lunch with him, when business didn't interfere. (9.2)

    Ox is the first friend Tom makes at the mill. There's a big difference between the two guys, and Ox has had a lot of life experiences that Tom hasn't had yet (duh: he's decades older), but they get along anyway. Ox teaches Tom the ropes at the mill, and Tom becomes someone for Ox to spend time with. There's the sense that Ox was lonely before meeting Tom and that Tom has a special way of making people not feel so lonely.

    Chapter 12

    "It's a good thing, giving presents for Christmas," Mr. Hook went on; but he sounded as if for him there wasn't much to it any more. Tom recalled hearing Ox say that Mr. Hook lived alone. His wife, Ox, said, had gone off with another man not long after they were married. No one knew what lay behind it, but George Hook hadn't married again, though there were plenty of young women who would have been glad to oblige him if he had ever asked. (12.4)

    Look at that. Mr. Hook's wife left him just like Polly Ann's husband left her. It's definitely not the best of things to have in common, but it emphasizes Tom's knack for facilitating friendships and his ability to repair the past. Mr. Hook even finds the joy in Christmas again, joining the Dolan family for the holiday after he grows close to Tom. Cute.

    Chapter 20

    He went across to the road and started down it, feeling sudden loneliness overwhelming him. It had begun to snow. It was a snow without wind, drifting straight and softly to the earth, but there was a lot of it. As he came down the hill to join the river road he knew that his snowshoe track would be all dusted over back on the flats. There would be nothing to show he had visited the Widow Breen. (20.23)

    Nothing like trudging through a snowstorm to make you feel lonely. Especially after visiting Mrs. Breen, even if she insists that she's not lonely because she has so many memories. Still, as Tom leaves her place, he's overcome with a feeling of loneliness from seeing how solitary her life is. Ever heard the saying that there's a difference between being alone and being lonely? Does the Widow Breen make a convincing case that being alone actually isn't the sad state of affairs Tom makes it out to be?

    Chapter 24

    The two buildings looked just the same as when Tom had last seen them, only there was no snow; and it didn't seem as lonely with all of them climbing down from the wagons and clustering on the porch. (24.8)

    Tom never really says that he himself is lonely. However, when he is in group of men like in this scene and when he talks about belonging, there is a feeling that this type of camaraderie has been missing from his life. Who doesn't love being part of a cluster?

    Chapter 36

    Birdy Morris was the last to put in an appearance. He came out on the porch, shuffling in a pair of old fleece slippers, and stared up the road over his humped shoulder. He recognized Tom and Drew right away, and even from as far as he still was Tom could see the grin come on Birdy's face.

    "Get down and visit a while," he invited. (36.17-18)

    When Tom is pulling up to Birdy's, he thinks it looks "as lonely as the Widow Breen's" (36.16). First, there's the fact that Birdy's place is over a mile away from the nearest neighbor. There's also the sense that Birdy is alone in other ways, since he doesn't have any family alive or close by. Birdy never complains about being lonely, but he does perk up when Tom is around, and Tom broadens Birdy's social circle, getting him to interact with other men like Mr. Hook and the folks at the barn-raising.

    Chapter 40

    […] he could see how pleased and excited Birdy was at having company. He went to fetch their own lunch pails.
    Polly Ann was handing down her lunch basket when he came back and Mr. Hook was holding up a hand to help her down over the wheel. She took it, though she needed steadying about as much as a bird on the limb of a tree. (40.19-20)

    Birdy, Mr. Hook, and Polly Ann have all grown close because of Tom. Each of those characters was able to survive on his or her own before Tom's actions brought them together, but there's the sentiment that life is way better and more enjoyable when there are other people around to share it with. Especially with the occasional hand-hold thrown in. Scandalous!

    Chapter 49

    Even though there were quite a lot of them, it seemed a lonely place. On the damp, still night air, he could smell poorly tended privies. It wasn't the kind of place he would ever want to live in. (49.13)

    When Tom passes through the impoverished Irish Settlement area, he notes that people can be lonely even if they are not technically by themselves. Polly Ann tells him that many Irish immigrants came to the area to work on the canal, but after that they couldn't find jobs. Feeling purposeless, helpless, forsaken, or forgotten can lead to loneliness too. Now that's deep.

    He put [the house] up on the side of the hill a bit above the barn, and from the front stoop you could see out east across the big swamp, gray and empty-looking in fall, so it seemed to some as if he had built his house on the outside edge of the world and looked off into nothingness. (1.2)

    The book makes a big deal about the Breen place being off by itself and about Mr. and Mrs. Breen keeping to themselves. The Breens like it that way, but Tom often thinks it must be lonesome. Why do you think Tom and the Breens have such different attitudes about being isolated? Is it an age thing? A personality thing?

    After Hawkinville, he and Polly Ann and Drew ought to have the towpath all to themselves. They met no one, and the only lights they saw came from the windows of two small houses, about a quarter of a mile apart, where the Barton brothers lived. Both the Bartons were over seventy. They lived by themselves, never having worked up enough never to get married. They never spoke to each other, either. But at the same time neither one of them had thought of moving somewhere else. Tom got to thinking how queer some men could get to be. (49.7-8)

    Being alone makes a person kinda cuckoo (and not just for Cocoa Puffs), at least in the opinion of Tom. Like the Widow Breen, the Bartons are old people who keep to themselves. Tom finds this to be really odd. And maybe it is, or maybe it's just different from what Tom's used to. Though Tom is no extrovert, he's always had the pleasant companionship of his mom and sisters and likes being around other people. It may be tempting sometimes, but living in the same house as your siblings and never exchanging words does seem a bit off.

  • Poverty

    Chapter 2

    Chick knew how difficult it was to say no to a little, ragged girl with a sweat-streaked face, lugging a five-gallon pail of berries. [….] It was the way Chick made them do it. It felt like begging. (2.6)

    Poverty can totally knock a person's pride, and Polly Ann has felt that sting acutely from her earliest memories. The memory of selling berries at the fancy Armond house to make a little money stays with Polly Ann, and she is determined never to put her children through that indignity.

    Chapter 11

    However, in a few minutes she was back, handing him a done-up package, and the strange thing to him was that she said thank you after taking so much pains to help him. So he thanked her, which seemed more reasonable, and got out of the store as quickly as he could. (11.23)

    This quote contrasts what life with money is like and the act of asking for money. From Polly Ann's memory, we see that it's humiliating having to go door-to-door, selling items to scrap together a little cash. But in this scene, Tom is the one doing the buying: he's getting a $2 (more than $50 today!) shirtwaist for his mother for Christmas. It's Tom's first time ever going to a store to buy something, so he's not used to the power shift.

    Chapter 23

    The Hulbert House was the biggest hotel in Boonville, where political visitors or sportsmen on their way into the woods put up. It had always looked very impressive to Tom, with its walls of gray limestone and a six-pillared portico, three stories high, with fancy railed balconies between them at the second and third floors. It had never occurred to Tom to look inside the building. It looked far too costly for a boy like him. But going into it didn't faze Mr. Hook a bit. (23.4)

    There's a whole side to life in town that Tom has never experienced because of his family's finances. Mr. Hook's ease in the upscale hotel highlights how different his life is from Tom's.

    Chapter 29

    They spent a few minutes admiring [Mr. Hook's] gray horse, and Tom tried to persuade Birdy to stay to supper, but again he wouldn't. He'd had a fine dinner, but he wanted to get back. Tom knew he was uneasy in front of Mr. Hook and let him go, but he felt sorry as the old man drove off. (29.25)

    A nicely dressed Mr. Hook arrives at the Dolan house on Christmas in a nice sleigh pulled by a nice horse. Birdy feels uncomfortable, not just because his things aren't as new and shiny, but also because being from different economic classes can make people feel like they have nothing in common. The next year, however, Tom and Polly Ann are able to convince Birdy to stay, and he and Mr. Hook get along well. That shows that class shouldn't get in the way of friendship, even though it might seem to at first.

    Chapter 34

    Tom thought that made a lot of rollingstock, and he felt mighty insignificant as he walked back across the bridge to talk to Mr. Armond. (34.25)

    Is a rollingstock, like, a mix between a rolling chair and a laughingstock? That may be more interesting, but it's old-timey lingo for things like wagons, carriages, and surreys. When Tom first goes to Mr. Armond's, he has to park his old horse and wagon alongside Mr. Armond's fancy-shmancy new rollingstock. It makes Tom feel pretty puny, even though he's there to make an impressive business offer for a boy his age. This is another moment that shows how money can make a person feel super powerful or utterly powerless.

    Chapter 36

    The house and Birdy's small barn were weathered. [….] The shingle roofs were patched here and there, sometimes with newer shingles, sometimes with pieces of tin. The buildings stood between two open fields where Birdy raised just enough crops and mowed just enough hay to keep his animals and himself alive. The critters were like himself—wiry, old, and tough. (36.16)

    Birdy has very little as far as material possessions go. As Tom puts it, "Birdy was hardly better off than the Dolans had been"—before Tom gets the Breen money, of course (54.37). However, Birdy never seems to begrudge his poverty. He knows how to make ends meet, and he seems at peace with his way of life.

    Chapter 41

    "And if Mr. Hook should ask me [to marry him], I'd say no. A person from as poor as we are has no right to marry a wealthy man like him." (41.49)

    There's that class card again. While Polly Ann's experience with poverty has given her good qualities like independence and a strong work ethic, she also defines herself by it and lets her poverty determine what is or isn't possible for her. It takes Tom reaching for his dreams for her to realize poverty doesn't have to limit everything.

    Chapter 49

    As near as he could make out, the houses were mere shanties, all of them one-story with one or two rooms, built close to the road. Even though there were quite a lot of them, it seemed a lonely place. On the damp, still night air, he could smell poorly tended privies. It wasn't the kind of place he would ever want to live in. (49.13)

    Here, Tom and Polly Ann are driving down the Irish Settlement road, and Polly Ann explains that Irish immigrants came to the area to help build the Black River Canal (a true fact), and after the construction work, couldn't afford decent farmland and fell into poverty. A worse state than Tom's, too—these people don't even have the resources to meet basic hygienic needs (vocab alert: privies were outhouses). Tom never has to experience this dehumanizing level of poverty, but Polly Ann suggests that she did when she says, "I guess they are as poor as us Hannaberrys used to be" (49.14).

    Chapter 55

    Knowing you have money in the bank makes all the difference in how a man feels and thinks, but only somebody like Tom, who had never had anything like that in his life, would know how much the difference amounted to. It wasn't that the work of building the barn up again had changed. He and Birdy worked just as hard. It was the fact that now he could see that certain definite things were going to be in reach in the time ahead. When they were poor, time had to go from one day to the next; the future was a cold gray curtain just ahead and frightening—not because of what might be going to happen beyond, but for what you knew could not happen. (55.1)

    With the Breen money in his savings account, Tom no longer has to live his life from one paycheck to the next; he can blow it all at once on a trip to Cancun. He doesn't though—not because Cancun wasn't the tourist destination then that it is now, but because he has longer-term plans for the future in mind. The lesson here: Tom wouldn't appreciate the money and the liberty it brings if he didn't have the perspective he gains from his humble beginnings.

    Chapter 59

    The stove was still there too, but so rusted from rain leaking down, it hardly seemed worth saving. Birdy, though, said they should take it out. You hadn't ought to throw away good iron. And anyway, some poor family would be glad to get hold of it. (59.8)

    Waste not, want not, as they say. This takes place when Birdy is removing items that have value before he and Tom burn down the Breen house. Birdy is an expert at seeing the usefulness of stuff most people would send to the dump. And it's not that he's cheap, like someone stuffing ketchup packets into their pockets at a fast food place. Instead, it's another aspect of his knowledge about their world, and Tom benefits from Birdy's resourceful eye several times while building his barn.

  • Memory and the Past

    Chapter 2

    It got in time so that she believed these stories she made up. Great-Uncle Tom became as real to her as her father, Chick, and a good deal more important in her thoughts. But whether the tales she told made any impression on Tom was hard to say.

    He liked just as much the stories she told about herself when she was young. […] (2.2-3)

    Even as early as the second chapter, we get an indication that family history will be an important factor in the novel. Polly Ann names Tom after her great-uncle (whom she's heard stories of from her own mother but never met) and she also tells him many stories from her own childhood. Placing these stories so early in the book gives us a clue that characters from the past will have a strong presence in the book, even if they're never physically involved in the story.

    Chapter 6

    She dealt out some more cards. "But there's quite a lot of money here later on. You ain't going to go around like a low-down Dolan any more." (6.24)

    The prophecy that Tom gets from the Widow Breen isn't just that he'll get rich. It's that he'll get rich and finally be able to shake his family's past. Tom has inherited poverty from his careless grandfather and deadbeat father. According to the Widow Breen, the future will let him leave that legacy behind. It's like being told you'll hit the lottery way, way in advance.

    Chapter 8

    [Mr. Ackerman] didn't say anything; it didn't seem like a proper time to do so, with the old man rustling around with his thoughts and memories, mumbling to himself something about "a scalawag, that Chick was," half a-grin. (8.32)

    When Tom goes to get a job at the mill, Mr. Ackerman asks who his father and grandfather are. Turns out Mr. Ackerman and Chick, Tom's grandfather, were downright chummy back in the day. Tom brings back the memory of the rowdy times Mr. Ackerman used to have with Chick, showing that the past is different depending on your perspective. Tom's gotten used to thinking of Chick as his no-good grandfather, but Mr. Ackerman remembers him as a friend from younger days. Funny how that works out.

    Chapter 20

    "I been in this house nearly my whole life, Tom, and I'm going to stay in it. It seems sort of lonesome to you, I guess. But I've got things to think about. There ain't such a thing as an empty room here any more."


    They sat a while over their cups at the kitchen table. Tom remembered how her yellow cat had sat on the table beside her cup and sipped a little tea when she offered him some. Perhaps that was a thing she remembered there, too; and suddenly to Tom it seemed the cat actually was there. (20.20)

    Tom thinks Mrs. Breen must be very lonely in her house all by herself, but Mrs. Breen experiences it very differently. All the rooms are filled with memories, which are as real to her as the present. Is she living too much in the past, or does she have a point?

    Chapter 28

    Sure, I remember your grandpa, Tom. Him and me we used to go bird shooting back in those days. Like as not we had Erlo Ackerman along with us with his old orange-spot setter dog. Erlo was quite a sport till his bottom half widened out on him and he grew his pomposity so big. (28.3)

    Like Erlo Ackerman, Billy-Bob Baxter (the speaker here) knew Tom's grandfather. In fact, all three of them used to pal around. Also like Erlo, Billy-Bob thinks fondly of Chick. Though Tom isn't at all like Chick in character, you get the idea that the older men who remember Chick might feel like they're connected to Tom based on their personal history. Tom at least gives them the opportunity to remember times from their past.

    Chapter 31

    They would fell [a tree for a supporting post] right away so it would have plenty of time to season, and Birdy would square it himself. He had his father's broadax, which he had used some in his time. He couldn't do the kind of job his father did, he told Tom diffidently, but he could make it square enough. (31.9)

    There's quite a bit of history going into Tom's barn. The barn belonged to Bert Breen; Birdy uses his father's ax for construction on it; Mr. Hook gives Tom tools from his family, too, along with a book his father once owned. Birdy often expresses the idea that passing things (including knowledge) through generations is very valuable. If it's true for barns, it's true for people, too.

    Chapter 34

    Mr. Hook came by Christmas Day as he had the year before, and this time he brought candy for the girls and Polly Ann as well as a set of carpenter's tools for Tom. He said they had belonged to an uncle and they showed they had seen some use. But Birdy Morris said that tools that had been used and kept well were always worth more than brand new ones. (34.2)

    Birdy reinforces the idea that good-quality items from the past are better than new ones from the present. He makes this point when he gives Tom the secondhand snowshoes, and he makes it again here: the past had value and substance that's hard to come by in the present. This must be one of Birdy's fave life lessons. And maybe one of the author's, too, since he wrote the book 75 years later, with old-fashioned barns and saws part of the distant past.

    They sat down to the platter of cold ham she had sliced off the Christmas roast, with pickles and potato salad, and cider to drink, and went right on talking about fishing trips and horse trades and the old-time hermits who lived way back in the woods with no friends except the garter snakes and toads around their shacks. [….] And Polly Ann's cheeks and eyes were bright. She listened to the men, breaking in now and then with some recollection of something her father, Chick Hannaberry, had told her when she was a little girl. The men listened to her and laughed at some of the things she said. Tom never recalled seeing her look livelier or prettier. (34.4)

    The year before this one, Birdy had left the Dolans on Christmas when Mr. Hook showed up. This year, he stays and trades stories with Mr. Hook about the past, which has a way of seeming to erase all the differences between them. It's kind of like if you were trapped in an elevator with a stranger and you found out you'd gone to the same preschool. Presto: awkward situation turns into gab-fest.

    Chapter 40

    Mr. Hook asked how many sisters they had been, and she told him five, until Prinny died. Prinny'd been the prettiest, with hair silver-yellow, like ripe June grass, a baby princess for a fact. Then for a moment she seemed to withdraw from them, her face veiled in memory, and her eyes staring out over the open meadow to the line of trees that marked the swamp. (40.25)

    At times, like on Christmas, Polly Ann is able to tell stories about her family with good humor, but for Polly Ann, the past also conjures many painful memories. In this scene, Polly Ann starts off telling Tom, Mr. Hook, and Birdy pleasant memories from her past while they're eating a picnic—but the bad ones seep in, too. You've got to have a bit of both to grow, they seem to be saying.

    Chapter 63

    [Tom] had an idea the way [Polly Ann's] mind was going, recollecting the times she had told about Chick Hannaberry driving into the place with her sisters and herself and how she had to go up on the kitchen porch to the back door with a five-gallon pail of red raspberries, or blackberries, or whatever kind of berry they had been picking—a little girl in a ragged dirty dress and bare legs still showing bloody scratches from the berry vine, looking up when the hired girl fetched Mrs. Armond but not able to say a thing. Well, he thought, glancing sideways at her sitting on the high wagon seat beside him, you'd hardly believe she had ever been that little shabby girl. (63.4)

    As important as it is for Tom to overcome his family's past, it may be even more important to Polly Ann because she had to live through the disappointments, frustrations, and hardships put on her by her father and husband. Here's the proof that she's done well.

  • Education

    Chapter 2

    He started doing jobs around the place he hadn't done before, but there wasn't such a lot he could do especially when there was school. The school they went to was about two miles down the valley and just the walking to get there and get home took a big piece out of his time. He couldn't see anyway that what he was learning there was going to be of help to him when he started out to turn around their lives. (2.10)

    Ever feel like that algebra you're learning in school won't be useful in the real world? Tom feels ya. He thinks there are more efficient ways to be learning the skills he needs to help his family. (By the way, we'll bet you an x to a y that at some point algebra will come in super handy.)

    Chapter 6

    "Looks like your life is about to change. Looks like you're going to quit your schooling and make some money. Not a great lot of it," she added, to Tom's disappointment. She dealt out some more cards. "But there's quite a lot of money here later on. You ain't going to go around like a low-down Dolan any more." (6.24)

    Today, most of us are told that education (through school) is the way to a better future, but Tom is told the exact opposite by the Widow Breen when she's telling his fortune. A ton of stuff would be different if Tom's story were set in the modern day. How do you think the Widow's fortune-telling would be different if the book took place in the twenty-first century?

    Chapter 7

    They were silent a while, and then she said, "You sure you want to quit school?"

    "It ain't doing me any good right now that I can see. And I want to bring us some money." (7.18-19)

    Sure, it might teach him that "ain't" ain't recognized by the dictionary. But again, this is a different time, and Tom has bigger fish to fry. It's not that Tom is a money-grubbing greed machine, but here, he points out the need to be practical. His reasoning floats the idea that education is a luxury that those who need to work to support their families can't afford.

    Chapter 9

    The first day, going around with Ox, he found things confusing. It didn't seem he would ever learn which chute let down which meal or grain, and he wondered why they weren't labeled. [….]

    Ox made it easy for him. He showed Tom clues to remember things by. When Tom got things wrong, Ox didn't raise his voice. He was slow and patient. (9.1-2)

    Ox is the first of many male characters who teaches Tom about the working world (and yes, it's another sign of the times that it's all male characters who have that role). Ox may seem an unlikely teacher—he's the lumbering-giant type, not the glasses-and-tweed-jacket type—but Tom would probably never have succeeded at the mill if it weren't for Ox. The work he learns how to do at the mill is his first step toward success.

    Chapter 27

    That same evening after he got home he began patching the roof. He had never done any work of that sort and at first he made mistakes and split the old shingles. But then he recalled Birdy's telling him, "Just go easy and slow, Tom. You'll get along faster in the long run doing it that way." (27.10)

    A great deal of Tom's education comes from Birdy, especially when it comes to construction and the natural world. This is just one of many instances demonstrating a skill he's learned from Birdy's wise words and practice. Wise words and practice: sounds a lot like education to us.

    Chapter 30

    The diagrams and drawings seemed to make reading come easier for him, and sometimes he did the lessons the girls brought home from school, while they made a game of being his room teacher. (30.1)

    Tom never goes back to school in the novel, but his attitude toward the kind of education one gets at school shifts a little, especially after Mr. Hook brings him the carpentry book. Tom's sisters, who do go to school, help out with the tough stuff, and the fact that they like teaching him and he learns from their schoolwork shows that education is gaining new value for Tom. This passage also gives the sense that certain types of learning become easier if a person is interested in the subject, has support, and can apply the subject to real life.

    Chapter 31

    Now he realized how much he had learned from his carpentry book. He told Birdy he thought they ought to put in a heavy post for the stone wall to butt on, a timber maybe fourteen inches square, to connect the ground sill with the second sill carrying the mow floor, and brace it two ways. Birdy agreed. (31.9)

    Well, look at that. Book learnin' is worth something. Tom has been studying the book all winter, and now he finds he can apply the concepts he has learned, and even make suggestions to Birdy.

    Chapter 57

    He and Tom discussed what Tom ought to do about flooring the stable. Tom wanted to lay down a cement floor, but Birdy persuaded him that that would take too long. 

    "You ought to get your critters out of that shed," he pointed out. "It's going to start getting winter cold before long, Tom."

    Tom couldn't deny that.

    "I think you ought to bring the old flooring down from Breen's," Birdy went on. "When you've got the stanchels up again and built a stall for Drew, then you ought to get that haystack inside the mow. You can work at making your cement floor all during the winter, laying a section at a time."

    It made sense. (57. 4-8)

    Don't get too cocky there, Tom. Though Tom has learned a lot throughout the book, he continues learning things from Birdy all the way through. Tom wants to put a new cement floor in right away because he has admired the floor in his neighbor's barn, but Birdy slows him down and reminds him to be practical. But don't think Birdy is a total party-pooper: later on, Birdy teaches Tom how he can run water pipes into the barn, which will make mixing the cement easier too.

    It was bound in heavy black cloth and had gilt lettering that said Encyclopedia of Practical Carpentry, Mark Foster, Editor. […] Almost every page had a diagram or drawing. Tom saw that he could learn a lot, even though he found reading a slow and difficult business.

    Mr. Hook said he hoped it might be helpful. It was an old book. His father had had a copy of it that had somehow disappeared. He had found this one in a secondhand bookstore in Syracuse. (29.27-28)

    Mr. Hook shares the idea that the most valuable kind of knowledge is passed through generations. This passage also demonstrates different ways of approaching knowledge: Tom didn't gain skills in traditional book knowledge after he left school, but he knows that learning from a book could be helpful to him when it comes to reaching his goal.

    "I'm not the only person's been helping you."

    Tom sucked his breath in. "Birdy Morris," he said. [….]

    "Exactly," said the lawyer.

    "You think I should give him some money?"

    "Yes, I do. Without him you wouldn't have been able to move your barn at all, Tom."

    "I know. How much do you think I ought to give him?"

    "I think that's for you to decide."

    "[…] Would five hundred dollars be right, Mr. Baxter?" (54.37-44)

    Here, Mr. Baxter gives Tom some ethical guidance about how to be a good person. We don't get the feeling that Tom is intentionally trying to snub Birdy, but he does come off as a fella who's so excited about his newfound wealth he forgets he may owe someone else some credit for it. This scene shows that Tom still needs the guidance Mr. Baxter provides, and the Q&A format shows how Tom defers to Mr. Baxter's guidance, while also growing through it.

  • Coming of Age

    Chapter 2

    He started doing jobs around the place he hadn't done before, but there wasn't such a lot he could do especially when there was school. The school they went to was about two miles down the valley and just the walking to get there took a big piece out of his time. He couldn't see anyway that what he was learning there was going to be of help to him when he started out to turn around their lives. (2.29)

    Tom starts taking on more responsibility and thinking of the future at the tender age of eight. He takes the initiative himself and is motivated to change his family's life. Pretty impressive for an eight-year-old! Even if dropping out of school isn't generally something to be proud of. It's like acing the SATs, but the rural turn-of-the-century version.

    […] Tom sometimes thought it must have been a pretty good way to live, away off from other folks, picking berries if you had to, and poaching trout out of Armond's brook and pond, instead of sticking to the chores in the barn and around the fields and garden, small as they were. (2.6)

    When Tom is a very little boy, his mother tells him stories about her family. For a while, Tom thinks his grandfather's haphazard and nomadic lifestyle sounds kinda fun. But smart little Tom changes his opinion when he sees that that way of life can't provide for a family. That change in attitude shows how he starts to mature and consider his family when most pollywogs are still wiggling their merry way along.

    Chapter 8

    "What can we get for you today, my boy?"

    That embarrassed Tom even more. He took his hat off, though both the men were wearing theirs. He started to clear his throat, but that turned out to be difficult, too, and when he did get his voice operating, it came out scratchy and high-pitched and he made himself repeat.

    "I came to see if I could get a job here, mister." (8.12-14)

    Here's a hint: job applications don't work like this today. Even though it does work out for Tom, he's obviously nervous—after all, he's just a country boy in a room full of grown men. His voice is cracking; he's fidgeting with his hat. But he gets through the request and lands the job. Ahem: first jobs are often major milestones in coming-of-age stories.

    Chapter 18

    He knew Ox was right, saying he was at the bottom of the ladder; but in a way he wasn't, for it had occurred to him that things in his life had come to a changing point. He and Polly Ann and the girls were better off than they had been last summer. He might still be at the bottom, he thought, but he had his foot on the first rung. (18.1)

    This is a good lesson in looking on the bright side. Here, Ox is trying to cheer Tom up after he gets a smaller Christmas bonus than the other mill workers. Tom is able to overcome his feelings of disappointment and acknowledge the small progress he has made. Hey, he didn't get a Christmas bonus at all the year before because he didn't have a job the year before. That's something! That's some mature reflection right there.

    Chapter 27

    During the winter he had had to help Polly Ann with medicine for the two girls when they got sick for near a month with some kind of chest complaint. He had also had to buy two work shirts and new overalls for himself, having outgrown his old clothes. (27.6)

    Tom wants to save all his money for the Breen barn, but he also realizes that he has the responsibility to provide the other things he and his family need as well. That's right: buying practical things like medicine and clothes is a sure sign of growing up and taking responsibility. We're pretty sure Tom was thinking "#adulting" as he bought that medicine.

    Chapter 53

    Tom had never been in the bank before. [….] It gave Tom a strange sensation to think he was entering the bank to do business there, the same almost as Erlo Ackerman might do. (53.1)

    Three years have passed since Tom started at the mill, but he still feels uncomfortable and out of place going into some adult situations on his own. Nevertheless, he's making progress, and he feels proud when he gets his bankbook. (The ATM card was still decades away.)

    Chapter 55

    "Mr. Dolan," he said again. He seemed to have a little trouble with his throat and had to clear it. "I'm glad to have your order, Mr. Dolan. It's a worthwhile order, too. Very worthwhile, I should say. But it seems, well, kind of large for a man like you."

    "What you mean, Joe Garfield," Birdy said in an amiable way, "is you wonder how Tom's going to pay for it." (55.2-3)

    Earlier in the novel, Mr. Ackerman went to the pharmacy with Tom to vouch for him. This is years later, and it shows that Tom still needs some guidance in the adult world, but also how much he's grown: now he's making a substantial purchase of his own, rather than running an errand for someone else. Birdy also gets a kick out of sticking up for Tom, and is very proud of him for making the purchase on his own. Cute, huh?

    Chapter 60

    Tom picked it up with the fork and then stood face on to the big brown bird. He had never cut up anything like that and suddenly suggested maybe Mr. Hook would know how to do it right. But Polly Ann would not hear of it. She said Tom was in his own place and head of the family, with a fine new barn, and all, and Mr. Hook agreed. (60.5)

    Remember when the Grinch gets the honor of carving the roast beast? Carving the holiday bird at the Christmas dinner table is an iconic position to signify that a person is the head of the celebration. Polly Ann insists that Tom take that position, and it means all the more to get the stamp of approval from Mr. Hook because Tom has seen him as a role model throughout the book. Let's hope he doesn't ruin the meal for everyone.

    Chapter 63

    Mr. Armond was sitting on the front piazza of the big house the way he had been sitting the first time Tom came. As soon as they got up to where the lawns started, his eyes showed bright, hard blue, the same as they had the first time, but there was a questioning look in them, so Tom realized that Mr. Armond didn't recognize who he was. That made Tom feel good inside. Having things happen bit by bit you didn't realize how big the changes were. (63.9)

    Since the last time he has seen Mr. Armond, Tom has taken down the Breen barn, built it up again on his property, found the Breen money, purchased a new team of horses and a wagon, and made a plan to turn his family's property into a paying farm. That's a whole lot of catching up to do. As he pulls up to the Armond place in a suit and new wagon, it's clear that he has come a long way.

    "Merry Christmas, all," [Mr. Ackerman] said. The men raised their glasses, echoing him, and Tom did the same.

    He didn't think much of the way whiskey tasted. He would a lot sooner rather have had a glass of Polly Ann's birch beer or raspberry vinegar, but he drank it down and put the glass back on the counter. (17.8-9)

    This is Tom's first time tossing one back with the guys. He doesn't like it, but it's a rite of passage. Oh, and before you go accusing the guys of sketchy behavior with a minor, views about drinking in the early 1900s weren't the same as they are now.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Chapter 2

    Time came, though, he began thinking what it would be like to have real Holstein cows in a barn with a cement floor like Massey's. It started him thinking about how poor they were. He noticed the way his mother had to work to keep things going, even as thin as their way of living was. (2.8)

    Tom is inspired to better his family's life by observing his mom's hard work to keep the family afloat. He also observes that his neighbors, the Masseys, don't have to struggle as much, so he sets his mind to improving his family's way of life. He's only 8 when he starts dreaming and planning.

    Chapter 5

    [Bert Breen's barn] looked to him as sound as it must have been the day it was built, and he began thinking how it would be if he could buy it and move it down to their own place by the river below Fisk Bridge. He knew, though, there wasn't any sense in thinking of it. He didn't have any money at all. None of his family had any. Just the same he knew exactly where he would set it up if he did have it. But that was crazy too. How was a kid going to move those timbers down seven miles of road? Let alone taking them apart and putting them up again if it came to that? (5.9-10)

    When Tom first sees the Breen Barn, he's only 13 and the idea of converting his dream into reality seems as likely as reality TV swearing off the drama. There's money involved and also hard manual labor—pretty serious roadblocks. It seems now would be a good time for someone to drop the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty." Fun fact: Teddy would have been starting his presidency (from 1901-1909) around the time the novel was set.

    Chapter 6

    "Looks like your life is about to change. Looks like you're going to quit your schooling and make some money. Not a great lot of it," she added, to Tom's disappointment. She dealt out some more cards. "But there's quite a lot of money here later on. You ain't going to go around like a low-down Dolan any more." (6.24)

    Mrs. Breen sees a better life in the cards for Tom. The weird thing is Tom's already considered how school might not be the best use of his time, and he's even talked with Birdy about plans for improving his family's property. In fact, the whole reason he meets Widow Breen is because he goes up to her land with Birdy to look at the barn. Still, he's really swayed by what Mrs. Breen has to say. Why does he seem to need this push from fate to believe in his dreams?

    Chapter 26

    All of a sudden Tom realized that it might be possible for him to buy the Breen place. Three years of taxes wouldn't amount to over thirty dollars. He didn't want that land, but if he had to buy the land to get hold of his barn, he would do it. (26.23)

    Tom's saving and planning is starting to pay off, and what seemed totally far-fetched for a poor thirteen-year-old boy now seems like it just might work out. Tom sees how the progress he's achieved so far is making the dream come into reach.

    Chapter 32

    It's not as if it was bad news, Tom. Like for instance, you losing your job with Ackerman and Hook. That's a real thing and your idea about the barn and getting it for taxes was a dream you'd worked out. I'm not saying it wasn't a good plan. It was, I guess. But it depended on might-have-beens, and might-have-beens ain't things to grieve for unless you want to roll in pity for yourself. (32.29)

    Here, Polly Ann talks with Tom after he gets the disappointing news that someone else has purchased the Breen property. She tells him to focus on practical things rather than hopes and dreams. She's not trying to be a dream-crusher; this is a woman who's had to be practical for herself, for the useless men in her life, and for three kids. It's no wonder she doesn't entertain pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams. She's been too busy working her butt off.

    Chapter 34

    You hadn't ought to get discouraged, Tom. Sure, it seems bigger than you thought, now you've learned what it takes to get a thing done. But, Tom, you got this idea about the Breen barn three years ago. You've never let go of it. You were a dreamy young boy then, and it seemed as long as you wished something it would surely be. Now you're sixteen. You've changed. You're big as some men are. Strong, too. And you've been growing up inside. But, Tom, that idea was good. It would be a sin to give it up because it looks some harder. That idea was what started you doing things, like working for Ackerman & Hook, like fixing up our house. It's not only been good for you, it's been so for the girls and me, and we are proud of you. (34.6)

    Could the cynical Polly Ann be coming around to the idea of believing in dreams after all? When Polly Ann sees that Tom's dream is coming true, her pep talk shows a change in tone. Even if she's never been the dreamer he is, she offers support when Tom feels overwhelmed by the process of moving the barn he's finally purchased. She also demonstrates how Tom's dream hasn't only positively affected Tom: it's changed those around him for the better, too.

    Chapter 45

    [Massey] led Tom into the barn to get them, and Tom looked enviously at the two lines of big Holstein cows in their iron stanchions, standing on the concrete floor. He wouldn't be able to afford anything like that for a long time. But when Massey said, "I hear you've got a real good barn," he agreed. (45.4)

    Material items are like Oreos. Once you have one, you want more. Tom even expresses this very idea later on in the book when he thinks, "it seemed that when you had a thing you wanted, it always led you on to wanting one thing more" (58.8). Striving is good, but characters like Mr. Massey, Polly Ann, and Birdy remind Tom to be appreciative of what he has and be patient in his plans for getting more. Tone down the greed, Tommy Boy.

    Chapter 60

    I want to make the Dolan place a paying farm. When it does pay, I'm going to put our name up on the barn, DOLAN FARM. Up to now, nobody, Hannaberrys nor Dolans, ever did a lick of work if they could help it. Except Ma. I want people to start thinking different. (60.15)

    Being your own boss on your own property is a pretty central symbol of the American dream, and Tom is that dream personified. On top of the property thing, he wants to change the way others view his family. Does that mean Tom's dream is motivated by anger toward his father and grandfather? Or would you describe his motivations in a different way?

    [Tom] said he wanted to start getting better cows than their little Swiss ones, and how he had to find a team of horses and a lumber wagon and some machinery.

    "With more cows, you're going to need more land," Mr. Hook said.

    There was a piece along the river, Tom told him, in front of their place, near eighteen acres. It belonged to Walt Sweeny, but he hadn't worked it for years. Tom figured to buy that to start with. He'd offer eight, maybe ten, dollars an acre, which was a good price. (60.10-12)

    Tom continues to make plans to improve life for his family even after he moves his barn. Achieving one dream can push you to want to achieve more. You don't want to let that momentum make you greedy, but you should let it continue to inspire you to make good, practical plans.

    Chapter 63

    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)

    This is the last line of the novel, and it comes when Tom is admiring his barn on his property. He thinks back to meeting the Widow Breen and how she read his cards. Why is there a return to the idea of fate in the last line? Has fate had a role in Tom achieving his dream?

  • Perseverance

    Chapter 10

    It was quarter to five, because he had to be at the mill at half past seven and before then he had to get the cows and help with milking, eat his breakfast, and walk the three miles to the mill. (10.13)

    We're yawning just thinking about this. Getting to the mill is hard enough, even without having chores at home before and after work. But you know Tom: he's determined to improve life for himself and his family, so he does it all without complaint. That puts us folks who whine about a 30-minute commute to shame!

    Chapter 13

    He felt near helpless. The storm now had him all to itself, the way a cat has its mouse. Whichever way he moved the wind had hold of him. The thing was not to stop moving. (13.5)

    Tom is fighting his way through a dangerous snowstorm while walking home. He knows he better keep moving or he could freeze to death, but it's a metaphor, too: that don't-stop-moving thing applies to any difficult situation. As Dory from Finding Nemo would say, just keep swimming. Hop over to our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section to see how the snowstorm represents using hard work and skill to persevere through adversity.

    Chapter 31

    Tom could see the barn as if it was already standing in place. Then suddenly it seemed foolish to him to plan it that way, supposing for some reason he couldn't get it. But Birdy said stoutly that if they couldn't get the Breen barn they'd build another like it out of other timbers. (31.2)

    This is a nice little lesson from Birdy on perseverance: if things don't go exactly as you originally planned, you don't give up: you just find a different way and keep going. Birdy, Dory—maybe there's some sort of animal connection here?

    Chapter 32

    "I know this meant a lot to you, Tom. But don't let it get you down. Not too far, anyway." (32.10)

    Billy-Bob gives Tom this advice after Tom finds out that someone else bought the Breen property, and Billy-Bob suggests that Tom can make an offer to the barn's new owner. Like Birdy, Billy-Bob encourages Tom to adjust rather than give up when his original plan doesn't pan out exactly as he'd imagined.

    Chapter 34

    It meant waiting through a third winter. (34.1)

    Getting the barn does not come fast or easy for Tom. He's been working at the mill for more than two years now, and he's been saving his money, making his plans, and learning about carpentry. It's hard to wait for your dreams to come true, but Tom never gives up.

    Chapter 37

    They spent pretty near the whole afternoon working out how they were going do the job. Birdy suggested that the afternoons when Polly Ann was using Drew to get to and from her house jobs Tom should set out walking to Hawkinsville as soon as the mill closed. He, Birdy, would come along with his team about the time Tom would get across the bridge and ride him up to the Breen place from there. It would save the time waiting to pick Tom up beyond Fisk Bridge. Through most of the summer they ought to get two or more working hours every evening. Sundays they would plan to work all day. It was going to be quite a job, but Birdy saw no reason they could not get it done. (37.6)

    As if doing chores at home, walking three miles to and from work, and putting in a full day at the mill weren't enough, Tom now has to pull nights and Sundays to get the barn taken down and built back up. Yikes. The tireless work is a true indication of the relentless effort Tom is willing to put in for his dream.

    Chapter 38

    "Don't run scared, Tom. Most jobs seem a lot bigger than they are until you've got into them. Then they look a lot more possible." (38.9)

    Add Mr. Hook to the list of folks who give Tom sage advice about persevering. Even though Tom's been planning to take the barn down and rebuild it on his property for a long time, the task seems pretty darn daunting when it comes time to do it. But Mr. Hook reminds Tom that once he gets started, it won't seem as overwhelming. How's that for a picker-upper?

    Chapter 42

    All his life Drew had objected to having to pull anything more than the lightest load and several times while Tom was piling on the boards he had craned his head around and stared with a bald accusing eye. Now, when Tom climbed onto the seat and took up the lines, Drew closed his eyes, leaned tenderly into the collar, and groaned, but the wagon did not move.

    Tom flicked his rump with the whip, sharp enough to make the horse toss his head and snort rebukingly, but he did lurch forward, the wheels turned slowly, and they started home. (42.1-2)

    Here's a fun little reminder, courtesy of Drew, the Dolan's horse, that work is hard and we don't usually want to do it, but we have to.

    Chapter 44

    […] she had to keep on with her days of doing housework for her regular employers, as well as the one day doing washing for the men who worked at Massey's. (44.23)

    Tom isn't the only character who displays perseverance. His mom is a great example of persevering too. As a little boy, Tom notices his mother's strong work ethic, and she persists as a hard worker even after Tom gets his own job and begins moving the barn. Do you think Tom would have the same sense of perseverance if not for his mother?

    "But I don't see why tonight," she protested. "When we are practically wore out."

    "That's why," he answered. "The Flanchers were here nosing around. Yantis begun asking Ox and Mr. Massey why we hadn't brought down the floor for the stable. Yantis may get a notion why I left it. But he wouldn't think of our going up there tonight any more than you did."

    Both Polly Ann and Tom have been working nonstop preparing for the barn-raising. You'd think that once it's done they'd be ready to face-plant on bed. But Tom decides this is the night to go up to the Breen place and look for the money under the old barn floor, and they hit the jackpot. Are they just lucky to find the money, or can we interpret this as the book's nod to the rewards of perseverance?

  • Contrasting Regions

    Chapter 11

    Inside the store there were a lot of counters, with sales ladies behind some of them and a lot of female customers looking over the goods. They all seemed to be talking to each other, their voices high-pitched and excited, kind of like chicken voices in a yard, when one hen or another had scratched up something special. Tom felt a kind of wildness in his eye as he looked around. There wasn't another man or boy in the whole store. (11.5)

    This is Tom's first time going into a store in town to buy gifts, and he picked quite the place to start. Not only is going into the store a new experience, but Tom also finds himself to be the only guy in sight. Sure, he's used to interacting mostly with his mom and younger sisters, but this is a whole new chicken coop. And see what the author did here: by making Tom think of the ladies in barnyard terms, we get yet another reminder of how uncomfortable he is here and what a country lad he is at heart.

    Chapter 13

    [The road to the Dolans' property] ran narrow, through close-grown spruce to begin with, with sharp curves, but the minute he came under the trees he felt at home. He didn't need to see to find his way. […] Now it was easier, for the snow made the road white under the dark spruces, as black as sorrow Birdy had once said of them. There was no wind, not even the sound of it, and the snow that came to ground dropped as light as flour sifted through a sieve. (13.13)

    Tom's lives a few miles outside of town and he knows the countryside well. If you want proof, it's right here in his ability to find his way home in a blinding snowstorm at night. That's a built-in GPS, right there. Beyond that, Tom's countryside is described poetically, with a mix of sadness and beauty: there's that simile describing the road "as black as sorrow" and then another depicting the snow falling like flour through a sieve. The novel is full of these kinds of complex descriptions of the countryside, and the text lets nature be many things—not all good or all bad.

    Chapter 16

    […] Tom realized, though he had never noticed before, that there were telephone lines at the top of the hill with a pole there serving the depot. Meanwhile a couple of more men came into the office one of them carrying the telephone itself. (16.1)

    Pick up your smartphone and do a search for what telephones looked like 100 years ago. Here's a hint: you couldn't search for anything on them at that point. But to Tom, this was cutting-edge technology. History nugget: the first telephone lines actually were installed in Boonville in 1900. Yup, that's right around the time when the novel is set.

    Chapter 18

    "Old Broken-Crow Redner made them," he said. "Made good snowshoes all his life. I come on them in a dinky little crossroads store over back of Gray." (18.22)

    Birdy only mentions Old Broken-Crow Redner in passing, but details like this show how interested the novel is in capturing the region's diverse influences. "Old Broken-Crow" sounds like a Native American name, so the casual name-drop nods to another presence in the area—one that's notably absent from the rest of the book. Heads up if you ever have to do a big project on Edmonds: some of his other books deal with Native Americans more extensively, but they've been criticized for giving only stereotypical representations.

    Chapter 23

    The Hulbert House was the biggest hotel in Boonville, where political visitors or sportsmen on their way into the woods put up. It had always looked very impressive to Tom, with its walls of gray limestone and a six-pillared portico, three stories high, with fancy railed balconies between them at the second and third floors. (23.4)

    The Hulbert House is another place in town that Tom enters for the first time in the book. For a boy from a shabby home with a barn not "much more than a shack" (2.7), the expensive hotel is a pretty stark contrast. The difference highlights that even though there are only a few miles between town and the countryside, there are worlds of difference in some of the lifestyles.

    Chapter 33

    "No idea what he paid for it. It's not worth anything, so he paid too much, that's sure. You get to be a lawyer in New York City and what you spend up in this country don't mean anything to you." (33.4)

    We've been told time and again that the Breen property is no good for farming, but Mr. Armond buys it anyway. Why? Because the land is adjacent to his own property, so why not? Mr. Armond can afford to do something like that because he's a fancy lawyer from the city. When Mr. Armond arrives at his property every spring, he comes with an entourage of domestic staff, fine clothes, and all the latest models of wagons. It's a way different lifestyle than Tom's humble country upbringing—and even puts life in town to shame.

    Chapter 44

    "The loggeurs will be coming back into the woods. They stop over Sunday in Forestport."

    Tom was puzzled. "Logguers?" he asked.

    Bancel said with some score, "My brother has not learned English too good, even yet. He means the lumberjacks." (44.6-8)

    Bancel Moucheaud and his brother Louis are French-Canadian, and their presence in the book, like mention of Irish settlers and Native Americans, adds to the picture of cultural diversity in the area. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many French Canadians immigrated to the US, often settling in states near the Canadian border and getting jobs as farmhands, lumberjacks, or millworkers.

    Chapter 51

    They were passing through the Irish Settlement. There were no lights at all now, except their own traveling the edge of the road as Drew pulled the wagon in a steady trot. Once a door opened—they could hear the hinge squeak—but whoever looked out didn't have anything to say. Then they were rolling down the steep hill and five minutes later passing through Forestport.
    There were lights in the saloons and Utley's harness shop, but the rest of the buildings were dark. Tom caught sight of a wall clock through the saloon window; he thought it said half past eleven.

    "It'll be way past midnight when we get to Boonville," he said. (51.28-30)

    Polly Ann and Tom's late-night treasure hunt gives one of the best impressions of all the varied kinds of people, places, and natural features sprawled through the region. In their journey, they pass lots of things: impoverished Irish families' shanties, saloons, roads to other towns, a church where a clergyman is consoling a woman, a shop with three old men sitting in front of a stove, and plenty of nature. Whew. All that traveling really drives home that establishing the sense of place in the area is very important, and Edmonds does it thoroughly.

    Chapter 53

    Inside the walnut doors with their long glass panels Tom found himself in a place like nothing he had seen before. A counter ran all down one wall but it wasn't like any counter in a store. It had a wall with sort of windows in it, only they had gratings over them like prison windows. Three of them there were, each one with a man behind it. Two said "Teller" across the top of the gratings; the third one had the word "Cashier." Tom couldn't see any real difference in the men behind them, though. They had palish faces and the hands that kept coming out through the bottom of the gratings were pale too. It wasn't the kind of place he could feel easy in […] (53.3)

    Like Tom's first experience shopping in a retail store, his first time going into the bank is disorienting and uncomfortable. This quote comes much later in the book than the shopping scene, but the fact that he doesn't feel "easy" shows how much his new experiences in town have an impact on him throughout the the book.

    Chapter 61

    They took the morning southbound train. Tom hadn't been on the railroad before. He sat beside the window at Mr. Hook's suggestion. (61.1)

    The train isn't new in the area like the telephones are, but it's another bit of technology that Tom has never had access to before going to work in town. BTW, some things never change. Even back then, the window seat was cooler.