"I guess I'll never have a coat like that. Can I?"
"You can. When you earn one. You'll be a man one day. One day soon."
"Someday," I said.
"It can't be someday, Rob. It's got to be now. This winter. Your sisters are gone, all four are wedded and bedded. Your two brothers are dead. Born dead and grounded in our orchard. So it's got to be you, Rob."
"Why are you saying this, Papa?"
"Because, son. Because this is my last winter." (12.87-92)
Whoa. Way to break it to him gently, Papa. If Papa's right, Rob's going to need to grow up fast. What do you think—is Rob old enough to be dealt this tough stuff from him dad?
"It's got to be you, Rob. Your mother and Carrie can't do it alone. Come spring, you aren't the boy of the place. You're the man. A man of thirteen. But no less a man. And whatever has to be done on this land, it's got to be did by you, Rob. Because there'll be nobody else, boy. Just you." (12.102)
It may not be ideal, but the point is that Rob has to step up to the plate, because there's just nobody else available to work the farm. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. P.S. Why can't Rob's mom take over? (The feminist Shmoopers out there will definitely have something to say about this!)
I felt his big hand touch my face, and it wasn't the hand that killed hogs. It was almost as sweet as Mama's. His hand was rough and cold, and as I opened my eyes to look at it, I could see that his knuckles were dripping with pig blood. It was the hand that just butchered Pinky. He did it. Because he had to. Hated to and had to. And he knew that he'd never have to say to me that he was sorry. His hand against my face, trying to wipe away my tears, said it all. His cruel pig-sticking fist with its thick fingers so lightly on my cheek. (14.33)
This passage pulls together all the contradictions of being a man in Rob's world: "Hated to and had to." Papa is just as heartbroken as Rob at the necessity of killing Pinky, but he knew what he had to do, and he did it.
Papa was breathing the way no man or beast should breathe. I had never seen any man work as fast. I knew his hands must of been just about froze off; but he kept working, with no gloves. At last he stopped, pushing me away from the pork and turning me around so as my back was to it. He stood close by, facing me, and his whole body was steaming wet with work. I couldn't help it. I started thinking about Pinky. My sweet big clean white Pinky who followed me all over. She was the only thing I ever really owned. The only thing I could point to and say…mine. But now there was no Pinky. Just a sopping wet lake of red slush. So I cried.
"Oh, Papa. My heart's broke."
"So is mine," said Papa. "But I'm thankful you're a man." (14.28-30)
So what makes Rob "a man" in Papa's estimation? Surely not simply that he took part in killing Pinky, right? No, it's much more than that—it's that he did what he had to do, despite how badly he didn't want to do it. That, to Papa, is what manhood is all about.
I just broke down, and Papa let me cry it all out. I just sobbed and sobbed with my head up toward the sky and my eyes closed, hoping God would hear it.
"That's what being a man is all about, boy. It's just doing what's got to be done." (14.31-32)
Shmoop thinks it's really nice that Papa doesn't discourage Rob's tears, but lets him cry all he needs to. Even in Rob and Papa's be-a-man type world, being a man doesn't mean you have to like the dirty job—it just means you have to get it done.
Mr. Tanner and his wife came in the black rig, with a pair of black horses. I went out to meet them.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Tanner."
"Robert, my name is Benjamin Franklin Tanner. All my neighbors call me Ben. I think two men who are good friends ought to front name one another."
"And I'm Bess," his wife said, "from here on." (15.26-29)
Ah, symbolism. The community, as represented by Mr. Tanner, formally recognizes Rob's new role as head of the household. And how does he do it? By telling Rob he can call him by his first name, just like any grown-up man would.
I fed and watered Solomon and Daisy. And milked her. Then I threw some grain to the hens, made sure they had water, and collected the eggs. One was still wet from laying. I remember there was only seven eggs; five whites and two brown. I wiped off the specks and carried them up the hill to the cellar. Then I went into the kitchen where Mama and Aunt Carrie were already moving about. Now that I was thirteen I was taller than both of them. I put an arm around each one of them, and held them close to me. (15.4)
What's the first thing you would do after you lost a beloved family member? The first things Rob does—feeding and milking the animals, collecting the eggs, and so on—seem kind of heartless until you think about the fact that there's nobody else to do these things. It's all up to him.
As I stood there looking over his tools, I had the hanker to reach out and touch them all. To hold them in my hands the same way he did, just to see if my hands were sized enough to take hold. (15.22)
Can Rob fill Papa's shoes? Shmoop says yes—grab hold of those tools, Rob, because you're up next. Here's a question though: does Rob want this gig or is just doing it out of obligation to his family?
"Rob," said Ben Tanner, as everyone took leave, "if Bess or me can lend a hand or help in any way, just ask."
"Thank you, Ben," I said. "You're a goodly neighbor."
"The way you said that," Ben said, "you sort of sounded like your father."
"I aim to, Ben." (15.38-41)
Well, that about sums it up. Rob is doing his best to live like his father, and from the sounds of it, he's already on the right track.
"Rob," Mama said, "I'm glad we've got you to handle things. I couldn't of done it alone."
"Yes you could, Mama. When you're the only one to do something, it always gets done." (15.18-19)
This is the ultimate compliment from Rob. It's not just menfolk who get things done. Mama, too, knows how to face up to things; Rob can rely on her to do what needs doing.