(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Neumiller and Jones families live on neighboring farms in rural North Dakota. Martin Neumiller, in love with Alpha Jones, visits her parents’ home on New Year’s Eve to propose marriage. A fierce winter storm kicks up, the wind howls, the temperature drops below zero, and snow piles up to the axle hubs on Martin’s Model A Ford. Alpha Jones accepts her suitor’s proposal, but Martin is still uneasy about what her parents think of him. Because of the bad weather, Alpha’s mother reluctantly agrees to let Martin sleep overnight on the sofa. Martin’s anxiety over Alpha’s parents confuses him, causing him to doubt whether Alpha has actually accepted his marriage offer. As he drops off to sleep, he thinks about what has happened that day.

Martin says prayers before going to sleep: Hail Marys, a decade of the rosary, the Our Father, and an Act of Contrition. The Neumillers are a devout Roman Catholic family—which may explain why Martin’s and Alpha’s parents have never been in each others’ houses although they live only five miles apart. Martin’s mother thinks Alpha’s father, Ed, is a devil and an insane atheist. Martin’s parents have often seen Ed Jones walking along the railroad tracks into town, his gray hair wildly flying in the wind and his eyes full of devious animal energy as he sings obscene songs and disrupts the quiet countryside.

Ed walks into town because he does not have a car and does not want to wear out his horses just so he can go out and get drunk. Ed has told Charles that getting drunk is his only release; Ed says he is killing himself trying to rid his farm of the quack grass that is choking the wheat crop. He has tried cutting, burning, and digging, but nothing seems to help. Ed feels he was duped after buying the old Hollingsworth farm and discovering its poor soil. The farm has been put under the plow for only ten years and needs more work to make it productive. Drinking is Ed’s way of running away from his problems on the farm—the impending loss of his daughter, a difficult...

(The entire section is 839 words.)