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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

Les, a man in his early forties, recalls a profound event that occurred in his sixteenth year. Glen Baxter, the titular "communist" and the boyfriend of Les's mother, Aileen, insists that he take Les out hunting. Les has never experienced anything like this before and is eager to experience what he sees as a rite of passage into adulthood. Aileen, however, disapproves. Not only does she find the violence distasteful, she is also wary of Baxter. This proposition has come at a time immediately following a two-month period of Baxter's absence.

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Baxter and Les eventually win the argument, and all three ride out into the prairie. After Baxter finds a multitude of geese on a lake, the hunt begins. Les is immediately upset by the act, finding himself disturbed by the noise the geese make when they hit the ground. He even goes as far to say, "I don't know why I shoot 'em. They're so beautiful."

Les sees a new ugliness in Baxter when he repeatedly shoots a wounded goose in the lake. Aileen is clearly disturbed by this display of unnecessary and excessive violence. When Les checks for her, she is already gone. Recalling all of this causes Les to ruminate that "A light can go out in the heart."

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

Les, the forty-one-year-old narrator, looks back to 1961, when he was sixteen and still living with his mother in a house left by his late father. His mother, Aileen, was a part-time waitress in the nearby town of Great Falls, where she met Glen Baxter, a self-proclaimed labor organizer and communist who had seen a side of the world that Les could then only imagine. A transplanted Westerner, Baxter was a drifter who “stayed out of work winters and in the bars drinking with women like my mother, who had work and some money”—a common way of life in Montana. All of this is merely the backdrop. The real story that Les wants to tell happened in November of that year: a single day that he would forever remember as a turning point, his rite of passage into awareness, when life as he knew it would never again be the same.

Although two months pass during which Aileen does not see Glen Baxter, she is not pleased when he shows up from out of nowhere and wants to take Les hunting for snow geese. Unlike his mother, Les is pleased by Baxter’s sudden reappearance and he enthusiastically accepts Baxter’s invitation. Aileen strongly disapproves of senseless bloodletting—as well as the attempt at male bonding between her son and the man who has deserted her. Eventually, however, Baxter and Les prevail and Aileen rides with them into the Montana prairieland that appears to lack any sign of wildlife.

Baxter, however, knows that the snow geese are there, and he finds thousands of them stretched out across a low-lying lake away from the road. Baxter proves to be experienced as both a hunter and a guide. Les recalls the moment when the birds break off into flight, and thinks to himself that this is something he will never see again and will never forget. Unfortunately, that one memorable moment is quickly dwarfed by another.

Aileen reappears, her spirit temporarily lifted by the magical sight of the snow geese rising up into the big blue Montana sky. It is clear that Aileen is impressed both by the geese and by Baxter’s grace and expertise with a shotgun. For one moment, at least, it seems as if all is well. Then Les makes the mistake of pointing out to his mother a wounded goose that is “swimming in circles on the water.” Aileen insists that they should wade out in the lake to put the bird out of its misery, but Baxter disagrees. He tells Aileen that she does not understand the world, that one small mistake does not really matter much in the grand scheme of things. Then he settles the issue by firing four shots into the goose. When he turns around, Aileen is gone. Just like that, Les says, looking back on these sad and distant events, “A light can go out in the heart.”

Later that night, after Baxter has left to lead whatever life he is destined to live, Les and Aileen share a tender moment together as geese pass by invisibly in the darkness overhead. For the first time, they see each other as they really are: not just mother and son, but two grown people who in a year’s time will be like strangers passing silently in the night.

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