Then she started forward, my trousers went tight, I heard a rip and a calf bawl. And a big hunk of hot stinking stuff went all over me. Some of it was calf, some of it wasn't.
As I went down under the force and weight of it, I figured something either got dead or got born. (1.20-21)
This passage comes from the first chapter, when we're just getting to know Rob. From the get-go, we're plunged into a life or death struggle, and a verbal connection is made between birth and death. We can be pretty sure this is going to be a recurring theme throughout the book.
He bent down and pulled the crazy quilt up around my throat. I could tell by the smell of his hand that he'd killed pigs today. There was a strong smell to it, like stale death. That smell was almost always on him, morning and night. Until Saturday, when he'd strip down to the white and stand in the kitchen washtub, up to his shins in hot soapy water, and wash himself clean of the pigs and the killing. (2.90)
Rob's Papa kills pigs for a living, so the interconnectedness of mortality and survival plays a central role in the Peck family. Papa's smell ("like stale death"—ick) is a constant reminder of the family's dependence on the blood and suffering of the slaughterhouse for their ongoing well-being.
"Come quick," said Mama, who was standing at the barn door. Just inside was a nest in the hay, right next to the warm wall near Daisy. Down in the hay was our barn cat, Miss Sarah, and three of the prettiest kittens you'd see anywhere. One was calico like her. (And if it lived it would be a female too. Male calicos die.) (5.35)
Even with a brand new litter of kittens on hand, the reality of death is never far away. Rob's matter-of-fact statement that one of the kittens may die showcases the common, everyday quality of death on the farm, and again ties birth and death together in the reader's mind.
Then we went outside and sat on a bench on the westerly side of the barn, me still holding the kitten on my lap, and we watched the sun go down. The pink became purple, and the purple turned to what Mama called a Shaker gray.
"Papa," I said, "of all the things in the world to see, I reckon the heavens at sundown has got to be my favorite sight. How about you?"
"The sky's a good place to look," he said. "And I got a notion it's a good place to go." (7.28-30)
Rob doesn't know it yet (and neither do we, of course), but in retrospect, it seems that maybe Papa already knows he's not long for this world. What parts of this passage show us that he's already thinking about the approach of his own death?
Whump! The hawk hit only a few rods from where I was standing in the clover. Just the yonder side of a juniper bush where the clover wasn't nearby at all, and where it once had been open meadowland for pasture. He hit something as big as he was, pretty near. And whatever it was, it was thrashing about on the ground. Seeing his talons were buried in its fur, the hawk was being whipped through that juniper bush for fair. But all he had to do was hang on, and drive his talons into the heart or lungs.
Then I heard the cry. Full of pity it was, and it even made Pinky get to her feet. I'd only heard it once before, a rabbit's deathcry, and it don't forget very easy. Like a newborn baby, that's the sort of noise it is. Maybe even a call for help, for somebody to come and end its hurting. It's the only cry that a rabbit makes its whole life long, just that one deathcry and it's all over. (7.10-11)
What's happening here? Yep, Rob is comparing a dying rabbit's cry to the cry of a newborn baby. Hmmm… you think our friendly author is trying to tell us something here?
The grass whipped on my legs as I ran after him, fast as I could. So I could see where on that ridge his nest was that I knew he'd circle back to. Pinky didn't want to miss a trick, so she was right at my heels. But I lost sight of the hawk. He just plain melted over a hilltop and out of sight. I sure would of wanted to see his nest. And to see him tear up that fresh rabbit and feed his little ones. I bet soon as he landed at his nest with his kill, all his brood had their beaks open, wanting to get some hunks of warm rabbit down their gullet. (7.14)
Just in case you haven't been paying attention, Peck hits you over the head with it again: life, especially new life, depends inevitably on death. Or in other words, killing the fluffy bunny = steely-eyed hawks with long-term prospects.
When I got back outside, Papa was home from butchering. His clothes were a real mess.
"Papa," I said, "after a whole day at rendering pork, don't you start to hate your clothes?"
"Like I could burn 'em and bury 'em."
"But you wear a leather apron when you kill pork. How come you still get so dirty?"
"Dying is a dirty business. Like getting born." (12.4-8)
Just another reminder of the Peck family's reliance on Papa's job as a killer of pigs. That's right—more connections between dying and "getting born": both messy, untidy facts of life.
It was like he was yanked off the limb by a rope. He fell kicking into a mess of leaves and brush, and when I got to him he was still twisting. Holding his back legs, I swung his body against the trunk of a sweet gum tree. His spine cracked, and he was dead.
Back on the kitchen stoop, I took a knife and cut open his belly. I was right careful not to cut the paunch. Removing the warm wet sack, I brought it into the kitchen, and washed it under the sink pump. (12.29-30)
Wow. Shmoop is willing to bet that for most kids today (and most adults, too, for that matter), the ease and familiarity with which Rob kills the squirrel is a wee bit shocking. Most of us today don't have anything close to this lack of squeamishness, but Rob has clearly done this a few times in his day.
Standing up, I moved away from Pinky as Papa went to her head. She just stood there in the fresh snow, looking at my feet. I saw Papa get a grip on the crowbar, and raise it high over his head. It was then I closed my eyes, and my mouth opened like I wanted to scream for her. I waited. I waited to hear the noise that I finally heard.
It was a strong crushing noise that you only hear when an iron stunner bashes in a pig's skull. I hated Papa that moment. I hated him for killing her, and hated him for every pig he ever killed in his lifetime… for hundreds and hundreds of butchered hogs. (14.21-22)
Rob's anger at his father is intense and goes beyond his despair at losing his beloved pet. Why do you think Rob hates Papa for "every pig he ever killed"? Is it really Papa he's angry at, or is it something else altogether?
He was always up before I was. And when I went out to the barn that morning, all was still. He was lying on the straw bed that he rigged for himself, and I knew before I got to him that he was dead.
"Papa." I said his name just once. "It's all right. You can sleep this morning. No cause to rouse yourself. I'll do the chores. There's no need to work any more. You just rest." (15.2-3)
Papa's death, unlike the violence and brutality that characterizes many of the scenes in the book, is presented to us as a calm, peaceful thing, almost welcome when it finally comes. What is the author trying to suggest anything about how he sees death? And do you agree?