Chapter 1 Summary

In turn-of-the-century Chicago, a wedding is taking place among the Lithuanian emigrants. Fifteen-year-old Ona Lukoszaite is marrying Jurgis Rudkus, a laborer in the meatpacking industry. Ona’s cousin, Marija Berczynskas, is in charge of the wedding preparations. After the marriage ceremony at the church, the wedding party travels to a neighborhood bar, where the celebration lasts into the small hours of the morning. Marija, the last to leave the church but the first to arrive at the bar, finds a large crowd of people at the door. It is the tradition that all passersby are welcome to join the festivities.

Ona, a small, pale, shy girl, is the complete opposite of large, dark, outgoing Jurgis. She sits quietly in the corner, overwhelmed by the jollity and noise. Tables are spread with an abundance of food, and a nearby bar has been set up, where many are indulging in free liquor. The band, led by violinist Tomaszius Kuszleika, is far from adequate, but at least it is loud. Tomaszius edges toward the food, moving through the crowd despite his diminutive size. He dominates the scene; his violin is screeching loudly and drawing attention to himself. Ona is too excited to eat despite the urgings of her cousins. Her step-mother, Teta Elzbieta, is running around, making sure everyone is enjoying himself. When Tomaszius plays specifically to her, Ona would like to run away but is rescued by Marija. Jurgis’s father, Ded Antanas, rises to his feet and tries to make a speech but is hindered by his chronic coughing. He wrote his speech himself rather than taking one out of a book, as is traditional.

Afterward, the guests form a circle around the bride. Each man is encouraged to dance with Ona and afterward drop some money into a hat held by Teta Elzbieta. This money is to defray the cost of the wedding feast, which may run as high as two or three hundred dollars. However, many guests give nothing, although they continue to eat. This is contrary to the traditions of the Old Country, but many of the immigrants are poor laborers; they work many hours for very little money and absolutely no job security.

At the end of the feast, it is discovered that the guests have given nowhere near enough money to pay the expenses. Ona is horrified that they are starting their married life with such a large debt. Jurgis assures her that he will work harder. This is a promise he has made since leaving his home in Lithuania, cheated all along the way. As they arrive at their home, Jurgis urges Ona to stay home from work even if it means losing her job (which it will). Ona protests, but once again Jurgis promises that he will work harder.