Eleven-year-old Eldon lives on a farm in northern Minnesota, on the edge of a forest which reaches clear up to Hudson's Bay. His family of six inhabits a two-story wooden house with white board siding. In the house, under the eaves, there are two rooms. Eldon and his elder brother, Wayne, share one of them. Two "very old" Norwegian men, Uncle David and Nels, occupy the other. Downstairs, there are four rooms—the kitchen, the bedroom where Father and Mother sleep, a dining room that no one ever uses, and a living room, which is comfortably furnished with a sofa, chairs, and a wood stove. The living room is also called the winter room; it is where the family spends much of their time in the winter.
Corn, oats, barley, flax, and wheat are grown on the farm, which spreads over eighty-seven cleared acres. There are two granaries and a barn on the property, which were built before Eldon's grandfather arrived there from the "old country." In the barn, there is a hayloft, a manger, calf pens, a silage pit, and a separator room, where cream is taken from the milk given by the dairy cows and then sold in town. In addition to the cows, the family owns two work horses, Jim and Stacker, who are gentle and so big that Wayne and Eldon must climb up their legs to harness them.
Life on the farm is defined by the seasons. Many people think that spring is a time of awakening, but in Eldon's opinion, springtime is "when everything gets soft and it's an awful mess." The bodies of dead animals that have been thrown in a frozen pile during the winter begin to thaw and draw maggots. The defrosting manure and slop that have collected around the barn is so deep that the cows actually have to lunge through to get to solid ground. The calves are born in early spring, however, and it is because of this that Uncle David calls the season "the best time there is." It is Wayne and Eldon's job to train the new calves to drink from buckets. The boys get the calves to suck on their small fingers, then draw their hands down into the container. Most calves quickly learn in this way to take the milk directly from the bucket.
Summer is a time for work. The season begins when Father takes the plowshares to town to be sharpened. He then goes over and over the fields with them to break down the soil until it is "as smooth as cake batter." Eldon accompanies Mother when she brings Father's lunch out to the fields, and sometimes, when the meal is done, Father will let him ride the tractor. Eldon is not yet allowed to help with the hard work on the farm, because he had been sickly when he was younger. Although he is fine now, his parents want him to "take it easy" until he is a little bit older.
During haying time, Eldon helps his brother shape the hay into stacks. Then, it is time to thrash, which is a very grueling task that involves separating the grain from the straw. Wayne and Eldon enjoy jumping from the barn roof into the straw pile; sometimes Father allows them to have a whole day of it. When the thrashing is done, it is time to hay again, and the silo must be filled with enough corn and feed to sustain the animals through the winter. There is so much to do that sometimes the work is not done until ten o'clock at night. Just when it seems that the summer will never end, Father hitches Jim and Stacker to the hayrack one morning and announces that everyone is going to the lake. It is finally fall.
Fall starts wonderfully, with a picnic for the family. Father cooks some steaks or pork chops on the grill, and Mother brings pies and potato salad. Afterwards, the boys swim in the lake, while the adults relax and reminisce. There is a lot to like about fall, when the barn is full of hay and "everything is done...almost everything." Eldon, however, mostly hates fall because it is a time of killing.
First, the steer must be shot, and its carcass hoisted to the barn ceiling with a pulley so that the meat can be butchered. Then, the pigs' throats must be cut. Father says that it is necessary for them to bleed out completely, so they cannot be shot beforehand. The pigs "scream and scream" as they bleed out and die, and Eldon thinks this is the worst part of it. He often hears their terrible shrieks echoing in his dreams. Father says, "It's the way of it...something has to die so we can live," and even though Eldon knows these things must be done, he "can't help thinking it's wrong." Eldon knows that the men do not like what they have to do either, because Father, Uncle David, and Nels are always silent while they are doing the killing.
There is a brief time of waiting when the slaughter is over, all the crops are in, and the leaves are off the trees. Then, one night, the first snow falls, and all of a sudden, there are "a million snow things to do." Eldon and Wayne slide down the river hill on grain shovels, build snow forts, and ride an old piece of tin roofing Father has hitched up behind Stacker. Winter covers up the things that are seen during the rest of the year and makes everything seem different. The days are short, and after supper, Father lights the stove and everyone gathers in the winter room. Mother knits socks and mittens, while Father works on his carvings. Wayne and Eldon settle in comfortably by the stove. Uncle David and Nels fill their lower lips with "snoose," and Uncle David tells stories, beginning with the one about Alida.
Alida was a beautiful woman, with clear blue eyes the color...
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