Robert Newton Peck has written more than sixty books, including the popular Soup series. A Day No Pigs Would Die (1972) is the first book he published. It and its sequel, A Part of the Sky, tell the story of a boy growing up on a Shaker farm in Vermont.
At school today, Edward Thatcher made fun of Rob’s clothes at recess; now Robert is thrashing a tree with a stick, pretending it is the cruel Thatcher boy who does not understand Shaker ways. It is April in Vermont, and Rob suddenly hears the sound of an animal in pain behind him. It is the neighbor’s prize dairy cow, Apron, and she is in the process of giving birth to a young calf, which has one hoof and his head protruding from its mother. The thousand-pound cow moves quickly away from the hundred-pound boy, still in pain and straining to give birth. Robert has already run away from one battle today, and he refuses to walk away from this one.
He tries to grip the calf but is unsuccessful; he decides he needs a rope to tie around the calf’s neck to help him pull. The calf may die, but Rob is determined to try to save it. He strips off his pants and manages to tie one leg around the calf’s neck and the other around a small dogwood tree. This stops the cow from moving, but she does not continue either to strain against the pressure or to push. Rob hits her, throws stones at her, and kicks her—many times, hard—but she is unmoving. Finally she moves forward, straining against the makeshift rope. Robert hears a tear and is then covered with the calf and very messy fluids. The next minute Apron is alternately licking the calf and the boy, but she is also gasping for air, and Rob wonders if the very large cow will fall and flatten him. Apron suddenly quits breathing and falls over; her head lands on the boy’s chest. He realizes something is obstructing her airway and reaches into her mouth to dislodge an apple-sized object. Although he has always been told cows do not bite, Apron crunches down on his arm and pulls him with her, dragging him, as she heads home. Her hooves are doing serious damage to the boy. Soon he blacks out. He awakens to find himself in bed, covered with a wool blanket, and in significant pain.
Mr. Tanner found him and brought the barely recognizable boy to the Peck home; now it is time to examine his injured arm. First, someone removes a hard ball of something from his hand. They are all dumbfounded, and Mr. Tanner explains that it is a goiter. After cleaning the bite wound, Rob’s comforting mother sews the gash. The pain is excruciating, but the twelve-year-old boy does not let out even a whimper. Haven Peck, his father, takes him upstairs to his comfortable bed, and his mother, who smells like lavender, tucks him in and gets him settled. Robert tells her about the calf up on the ridge that Mr. Tanner will want to check on soon; he also apologizes that she will have to make him some new trousers. She smiles and tells him she would rather mend pants than a son.
After he has slept for some time, his mother brings him something to eat; at bedtime, his father brings him one of the last winter apples from the cellar and then sits next to the bed. He gently chides his son about leaving school in the middle of the day, and Rob gets the point. Haven offers him a slice of spruce gum, straight from a tree, and shows him a fine piece of sumac, which will make a great whistle when the bark has been stripped. His father clarifies what happened on the ridge, then he pulls the blankets clear up to Rob’s chin before leaving. Rob recognizes the smell of death on his father’s hands; this scent rarely goes away except a little on Saturday nights when father scrubs the smell of blood and death from his body. The scent is to be expected, though, from a man who kills pigs for a living.
It is almost a week before Rob gets out of bed. It is a Saturday, which is just how Rob planned it, so he can have two free days before returning to school. Haven Peck notes his improvement and puts him to work helping him mend the fence between their property and Mr. Tanner’s. Rob ponders fences, which keep even friends apart. His father tells him that animals’ marking their territories is a kind of fence building and that fences are not signs of war but a way of keeping peace.
They hear a rustling around them and look up to see Mr. Tanner leading a motley procession. Behind him is Apron, all cleaned up and looking perfectly healthy. Behind her is a black calf with the same white “bib” markings, and nearly getting trampled under her is an identical black calf. Mr. Tanner is hopeful the twin bull calves will do their town of Learning proud at the fair next year. He tells the Pecks their names are Bob (as a tribute to the boy) and Bib; and he offers a thank you to Robert in the form a newly weaned, little, pink pig. Haven is reluctant to accept any kind of remuneration for doing something any farmer would have done for a neighbor and an animal in need. In the end, though, Rob keeps the pig and names it Pinky. Haven tells him he must build a pen for the pig, though Robert had figured Pinky would share the barn with their cow and their ox. His father explains that Shaker Law says pigs are wild animals by nature and must not be kept with other animals. Besides, this tiny pig will one day be a breeding sow weighing as much as three hundred pounds. Rob is fascinated by this beautiful gift.
It does not take long for the piglet to grow attached to his owner. As father and son continue working on the fence, Pinky follows Rob everywhere. When they go back to the house, Pinky still tries to follow him. Mother will not have an animal in her house, though she does think Pinky is the most adorable pig she has ever seen. His mother’s sister, Aunt Carrie, says she has never heard of naming a pig before, but the subject quickly gets changed. Pinky eats a deliciously sloppy milk-and-meal mixture from one of Rob’s mother’s cracked bowls. After lunch, Mr. Peck tells his son the old corn crib might make a good pen for Pinky. With Solomon’s help, they are able to move the crib with minimal effort.
Robert wonders about Shaker Law, something his father strongly believes in although he cannot read. The Shaker Law was read to him, and he says he listened with his whole heart since he knew he may never hear it all again. Rob is dismayed with the Law, especially the part that prevents them from attending baseball games on Sundays. Mr. Peck explains that the Book of Shaker and their own hard work is all they need to be successful and content in life. Robert says his teacher talks often about being proud to be a Vermonter, about being able to vote and choose good men to live in the White House. Mr. Peck says he cannot vote for any man because he cannot read and write, even though everyone in the town of Learning knows he builds with beams that are true, has straight rows of corn, and butchers their pigs faithfully and well. One day soon they will own their land, he reminds his son, and they are blessed in all ways.
That night Rob sleeps with Pinky in his new pen and thinks he is the “luckiest boy in Learning.” Sunday morning the Peck family goes to church, and Robert is thrilled because he is able to sit in a place where he can see Becky Tate but she cannot see him. Sunday afternoon is spent in a leisurely fashion. Rob and his pink companion head to the ridge, where Pinky roots up some butternuts she is not yet strong enough to crack. Robert cracks them open for her. Pinky is scolded by a crow, surprised by a frog, and pinched (in the snout) by a crawdad. Rob tells her he is named for Major Robert Rogers, a brave Shaker man who dressed like an Indian and fought bravely against them. There is even a monument to him near Ticonderoga. When it is time to head home for chores, the boy runs just to see if the little pig can keep up with him. She can. Mother calls Robert to the barn when he arrives to show him Miss Sarah’s (the barn cat’s) new kittens. It is “always a wondrous thing,” says Mrs. Peck, and Rob holds Pinky up so she, too, can see the miracle.
June has arrived, and it is finally the last day of school. Rob races home with his report card in his pocket until he spies his house and the corn crib in the distance. When he is close enough, the boy calls out to the pig and she comes running. In the ten weeks since he got her, Pinky has grown to the size of her owner. They enjoy rolling around in the field for a few minutes until Robert knows he must go home; Pinky follows, but her size has certainly slowed her down.
As Rob approaches the house, his mother beckons him to come inside. There sits Aunt Matty. She is not his real aunt but is his mother’s cousin, twice removed; however, she comes to visit twice a month, and his mother always uses her best teacups for the visit. Today Robert makes a big mistake. He pulls out his report card to show his mother. She cannot read, but she does know what an A looks like, and there are many of them on his report card. In fact, they are all As—except for a D in English. Aunt Matty hones in on the D, and she nearly faints from the disgrace of such a mark. She offers a remedy—a tutor. When he hears the word, Rob is relieved, for his friend Jacob plays a “tooter” in the band—only he calls it a cornet. Although the cornet sounds bad when Jacob plays it, Rob is sure it is better than any medicines he has had to swallow (followed by many, many trips to the outhouse). Aunt Matty suggests that she will be his tutor, and Rob immediately bursts into peals of laughter at the image of this rather eccentric woman marching in a parade, blowing her cornet. She is not amused by his laughter, predicting he will earn an F for Failure next time; she must do everything she can to keep that from happening and she will begin tutoring him immediately. The imposing woman in the flowered dress, colorful beads, and “big old floppy pocketbook” marches him into the parlor.
Aunt Matty tells him she used to be an English teacher. She is not surprised his grade is so low, considering he has been raised in a Shaker home. If he had grown up in a Baptist home, this never would have happened. Now Robert is really frightened, for he knows all about Baptists. They nearly drowned people by ducking them under water three times. If the person died in the process, he would go to Hell; even worse, if the person lived he became a Baptist. The thought of a large woman holding him under the water makes him nervous and breathless.
After digging into her oversized bag for pencil and paper, Aunt Matty quizzes the boy on the correct use of who and whom. He is still in shock and cannot answer her at all. The problem, says the former teacher, is that he does not know how to diagram. Diagramming is the answer to everything when it comes to grammar. She poses a sentence to Rob and tells him to diagram it, which he is unable to do. Bracelets jangling, Aunt Matty creates a whirlwind as she draws a magnificent diagram and ends with a flourish. She tells Rob to place it on his wall, which he says he will do. He has to go do his chores, and his mother reminds him to thank Aunt Matty for tutoring him, which he does. As he is leaving, he hears his mother ask how it went. Next time, says Aunt Matty, she will teach the pig.
One summer night after evening chores are finished, Rob and Pinky are lying in a field of purple clover. Overhead, Rob sees a hawk seeking its prey. Suddenly the bird stops in mid-air, then drops like a rock to the ground. There is a tussle in the tall grass; Rob then hears the piteous sound of a rabbit crying out for help. That is the only sound a rabbit ever makes, and he does so only at his death. Rob and Pinky take several steps toward the bird and its prey, but the hawk flies off, limp rabbit in his strong talons. Rob thinks of the delicious rabbit pie his mother makes and wonders if Pinky would ever eat a rabbit. He knows sows will eat their young, so he figures she probably would. He feeds Pinky very well, hoping she will not need to search for other food. He keeps track of how much he feeds her; he would give up breakfast every morning if he could grow as fast and as much as Pinky (who also drinks about ten gallons of water every day). He tells the pig she will soon be mated with Mr. Tanner’s boar, Samson, and she will live a long and prosperous life as a brood mare; there will be no butchering for her. They return to the house. Rob sits on the front porch with his father, kitten on his lap, and watches the glorious sunset. He tells his father there is nothing he likes better than the sight of the heavens at sunset; his father agrees and says he reckons it is just as good a place to go as it is to see.
It is raining hard one night when Robert hears the sound of visitors downstairs. He gets up and peers over the railing to see what the commotion is; he sees his mother and Aunt Carrie pulling Mrs. Hillman, holding a lantern, inside the house. They are trying to calm her, and Rob can only catch part of what is being said. Her husband, Sebring Hillman, has taken the horse and carriage and is heading to dig something up tonight, when no one would hear or notice. Rob also hears something about another woman, kin to his family, and birthing and dying. He just settled back into bed when his father calls him downstairs. They hitch up Solomon and head to town; Rob holds the lantern. His father does not say much, but he does say they are not going to let Sebring Hillman desecrate what is theirs. Soon Robert hears the sound of a shovel hitting wood, though there is no lantern near the sound. Haven gets out his gun and makes it clear that his cousin Letty’s grave will not be touched. The crazed man says he is digging for something else, and soon he is holding a small box close to his chest. He says he did not step forward and claim it before Letty drowned her, but he wants to do so now. He wants to bury her in his family’s burial site and apologizes to Haven for not claiming the child sooner and perhaps preventing Letty’s untimely death. Haven understands the sentiment, and they replace the earth over her grave. When they get home, Mrs. Hillman is still there. Mother offers Mr. Hillman a hot cup of coffee. After Robert is dried and warm, he heads back to bed; as he walks through the kitchen, he sees the couple get into their wagon together, a baby’s coffin riding in the back.
Robert overhears his aunt and his mother talking one day as he is giving Pinky a bath. Aunt Carrie seems to be “het up” about a scandal, and her sister is trying to be reasonable. The scandal is that Widow Bascom and her hired man are living under the same roof—without the blessing of marriage. Much of Aunt Carrie’s information has been gathered from Aunt Matty, and it appears that the widow and her hired man (who is a year older than the widow) have been giggling and laughing in the dark. Mrs. Peck is happy to hear this because Mrs. Bascom has been widowed for several years.
Robert ponders two encounters he had with the widow. He and Jacob Henry ran through her strawberry patch, and she gave them each a good whack in the...
(The entire section is 6227 words.)
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