"Here's two beads of spruce gum. One's for me. But I don't mention you'd want one."
"Yes, I sure would. Please."
"Here, then. Might help you forget where those prickers are nested."
"It's helping already. Thanks, Papa."
The spruce gum was hard and grainy at first. Then the heat of your mouth begins to melt it down so that it's worth the chewing. The bit that Papa gave me was rich and full of sappy juices. Except that every so often you have to spat out a flick of the bark. (2.71-76)
Wow, this kid is poor. Seeing him get excited over a piece of homemade gum (with bits of bark in it!) really brings home just how few treats he's used to getting. You know who this reminds us of? Little Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Watching our neighbor walk away, taking his cow and twin calves with him, I held Pinky close in my arms. She was the first thing I had ever really wanted, and owned. At least, the first thing of value. The only other thing I'd wanted was a bicycle, but I knew we couldn't afford it, so there was no sense in asking. Besides, both Mama and Papa would have looked at a bicycle as a work of the Devil. A frill. And in a Shaker household, there wasn't anything as evil as a frill. Seemed to me the world was full of them. But anything that Mama wanted and didn't have the money to buy (or the goods to trade for) was a frill to her. (3.59)
Poor Rob. A bicycle—something that a lot of kids take for granted—is so far out of the realm of possibility for him that he doesn't even bother asking his parents. It might seem sad to us, but is it sad for Rob? What emotions are going on in this passage?
"We are Plain People, your mother and aunt, and your sisters, you and me. We live the Book of Shaker. We are not worldly people, and we suffer the less for not paining with worldly wants and wishes. I am not heartsick, because I am rich and they are poor."
"We're not rich, Papa. We're…"
"Yes we are, boy. We have one another to fend to, and this land to tend. And one day we'll own it outright. We have Solomon here to wind up a capstan and help us haul our burdens. And look here, he's almost done pulling that cratch where we want it pulled to. We have Daisy's hot milk. We got rain to wash up with, to get the grime off us. We can look at sundown and see it all, so that it wets the eye and hastens the heart. We hear all the music that's in the wind, so much music that it itches my foot to start tapping. Just like a fiddle." (4.103-105)
Rob focuses on all the things the Pecks can't afford, but Papa looks at the important things they do have, most of which don't cost anything at all. Can't buy me love, that's for sure.
Mama came running out of the house and toward the barn, holding out her hands. I ran to her and hugged her clean and warm and hard as I could. Aunt Carrie was there, too. I wanted to tell her (as I hugged her) as to how I spent the ten cents that she gave me, but I thought better of it. Ten cents for a used piece of saddle soap was a dear price. (11.15)
Back in the day, ten cents was a big chunk of change, especially for a kid. And an underprivileged kid at that. But Rob chooses to use it for something he needs (and bad!), not something he wants. Pretty responsible, don't you think?
Papa put his hand on my shoulder as we walked up to the house.
"Try an' try," he said, "but when it comes day's end, I can't wash the pig off me. And your mother never complains. Not once, in all these years, has she ever said that I smell strong. I said once to her that I was sorry."
"What did Mama say?"
"She said I smelled of honest work, and that there was no sorry to be said or heard." (12.68-71)
Mama makes the best of everything; we never see her complain about how little the family has. Guess this is an example of just how rich the Pecks are in the things that matter.
All this talk of hogs and dollars and meat and banks was rolling around inside my head with no direction. It didn't quite sound Christian to me, but then I suppose that everyone in the world didn't all live strict by the Book of Shaker.
"But we're Plain People, sir. It may not be right to want for so much."
"Nonsense, boy. Bess and I are fearing Christians, same as you." (13.68-70)
Rob is afraid that having too much in the way of material comfort will disagree with his standing as a good Shaker. We're going to bet he's not in any danger of that anytime soon. P.S. Check out our section on "Setting" for more on the Shaker way of life.
Pinky did not have a litter of pigs. She was bred and she was barren. And she ate too much to keep as a pet. (14.6)
Even a pet is a luxury that Rob's family can't afford. From the beginning, it was assumed that Pinky would eventually pay her own way by producing a brood of profitable piglets. Since that clearly isn't going to happen, Papa has no choice but to make the hard decision.
Twice, Papa had seen a buck and several doe upon the ridge. But each time he got the shotgun and slugshells ready, the deer were gone. Jacob Henry's father got a buck. So did Ira Long. One of the men who farmed for Ben Tanner got a doe. But Papa didn't have a deer rifle; only a shotgun with ball loads. He had to get close for a shot. (14.3)
Poor Papa. He's trying so hard to do whatever he can to avoid having to sacrifice Pinky, but he just can't catch a break. The fact that the Pecks are too poor to afford a deer rifle makes it even harder for him to provide for his family. Life's just not fair sometimes, is it?
Then I went inside to change clothes, as it was almost noon. As a young boy, I'd had a black suit that Mama made me. But I always felt like a preacher in it. Besides, now it was way too small. And what Papa owned was too spare. So I just put on a new pair of work shoes that were tan, and a pair of Papa's old black trousers which I turned up inside and stuck with pins. I wore one of his shirts with no necktie. I looked at myself in the mirror, to make sure I had the dignity to lead a family to a grave. I looked more like a clown than a mourner. The shirt didn't fit at all. And the tan work shoes just stuck out like I was almost barefoot. I ripped the shirt off and threw it on the floor. "Hear me, God," I said. "It's hell to be poor." (15.24)
Even when he's getting ready for Papa's funeral, Rob is still struggling with the consequences of the family's poverty. Ouch.
I was glad they came. Some of them were dressed no better than I. And some not even as well, but they came. They came to help us plant Haven Peck into the earth, and that was all that counted. They'd come because they respected him, and honored him. As I looked at all them, standing uneasy in our small parlor, I was happy for Papa. He wasn't rich. But by damn he wasn't poor. He always said he wasn't poor, but I figured he was just having fun with himself. But he was sober. He had a lot, Papa did. (15.31)
We've come full circle. Rob finally sees the truth of Papa's insistence that he wasn't a poor man. And did you notice that there are families in the community who are even poorer than the Pecks? What really matters, though, is that everyone turned out to say goodbye to Papa. That's a rich life if we ever saw one.