Last Updated on April 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1416
Back in 1951, Eldon and Jimmy heard about a war in Korea. They had never heard of the country, but all around them men began enlisting. Jimmy suggested that they enlist with the hope of receiving some additional training that would equate to more money for them after the war. At age eighteen, the two enlisted and were assigned to the Royal Canadian Regiment.
During basic training, Eldon and Jimmy found that they loved the physical work and the challenge, though it was the hardest work Eldon had ever done. They became point men; while Eldon thought they were chosen to be out front because they were Indian, Jimmy insisted that they were placed in the position because they were good soldiers. They two were sent to Pusan, where they faced Chinese troops. They spent most of their time in the trenches, unable to move; even a raised helmet drew sniper fire. As twilight approached each evening, the troops emerged from their trenches, sneaking toward each other. At these times the soldiers experienced the grotesque realities of war, tearing each other apart and covering the land in blood. Screams and weeping filled the night air. Eventually, a call to disengage forced them all to retreat back to their own trenches in order to prepare for the next battle. The boys fought this way for months.
Eldon shares some of the history of their last name with Franklin, explaining that Jimmy taught him what he knows. Starlight, according to Jimmy, is a name originating from the Star People. According to oral history, on clear and starry nights, the Star People came out of the stars to teach the wisest people, providing additional insights about the world. Those who carry the name Starlight are supposed to be great teachers and storytellers. Jimmy’s own last name, Weaseltail, was given to warriors who bore the tails of weasels on their headdresses as a sign of honor.
Eldon then resumes the story of the war he and Jimmy fought in together, remembering how Jimmy asked to be buried as a warrior if he was killed in the war. Eldon swore that he would bury him sitting up and facing east, and the two sliced their palms and painted stripes of blood on each other’s face, symbolizing that each carried the other into battle. Eldon and Jimmy were selected for a reconnaissance mission. They prepared their gear and slowly began crawling across the open area which separated them from the Chinese forces. A sudden explosion behind them made Eldon rise up, and Jimmy jerked him back down. Chinese forces descended upon them, and Jimmy stabbed one man in the stomach. He and Eldon began running back toward their trench under heavy enemy fire. Suddenly, Jimmy grunted and fell to the ground, a dark pool of blood quickly surrounding him. Eldon fell to the ground beside him, and he tried to move Jimmy to an area which would better hide him. Wild with pain, Jimmy screamed in agony. Eldon realized that if he kept screaming, he would give away their location. He tried covering Jimmy’s mouth, and then he pressed his own knife against Jimmy’s chest. Jimmy looked at the knife and realized what Eldon wanted to do; he silently nodded, and Eldon twisted the knife as he held his own face close to Jimmy’s, hearing Jimmy’s final breath leave his body. Screaming and crying, he ran back to his own trench.
Eldon tells Franklin that he didn’t want to die that night, and he didn’t want to be found and tortured, either. When he returned to his trench, he told his commander that Jimmy had been killed by the Chinese. They never found his body. Eldon began drinking so heavily afterward that he was given a dishonorable discharge. Franklin tells him that Jimmy likely would have died anyway, but Eldon says that it’s impossible to know the truth of that. Franklin tells him that this line of thought is better than thinking of himself as a coward for the rest of his life. Eldon calls Franklin “hard.” Franklin says that he just prefers not to live with lies. Eldon responds that Franklin has never had to live through a war, and Franklin replies that he hasn’t lived through one of his own; instead, he has been forced to live through a war that Eldon never finished. As he watches his father sleep a while later, he reflects that Eldon’s war is almost over.
When Eldon awakens the next morning, Franklin offers him a bit of the whiskey he’d saved along with some more of Becka’s medicine. It’s difficult for Eldon to swallow, and his hands shake wildly. Franklin leaves to gather more food and returns with fresh fish and mushrooms, which he cooks over the fire. After he eats, Eldon acknowledges that there is “one more thing” that he needs to talk about, and Franklin responds, “My mother.”
Eldon’s next story begins after the war, when he returned to Parson’s Gap and found the logging camp deserted. No one knew anything about his mother. His reputation was complex; he was known as both a hard worker and a man who recklessly spent all he earned on his next binge, which often ended in an angry crash. Mornings often found him at the Dollar Holler along with the other local drunks, who waited for a few trucks to drive by offering a day’s work. He often visited Charlie’s, where he ran up a tab and paid it off when he could.
One evening as he sat drinking slowly, the jukebox began a distinctly atypical tune. He noticed that a crowd had gathered around a dancing couple and was particularly captivated by the way the woman danced. A man who introduced himself as Bunky sat down with Eldon and commented on the woman, saying that she was a “fine one” and an Indian, like Eldon. The two watched her begin another dance, this time to a slow country song. Another man entered the bar; Bunky told Eldon the man’s name was Everett Eames. He made his way to the table where the woman sat with her dance partner and some lumberjacks. The woman’s dance partner, Dingo, told Eames to leave and then poured a pitcher of beer in his face. Bunky intervened, telling Dingo to stop. For a moment, it looked like Dingo, who was much larger than Bunky, was going to fight him. Finally, he stepped aside, telling Bunky that if he wanted to hang with the “mooch,” he was welcome to do so. Bunky pulled Eames to his feet and bought him a beer. After they sat back down, the woman walked over and told Bunky that his actions were the kindest and bravest she’d ever seen. She introduced herself as Angie Pratt and quickly became captivated by Bunky. Eldon realized that he was in love with this woman.
In these chapters, Eldon demonstrates a lifelong inability to follow through on commitments to people he cares about. He has periodically darted in and out of Franklin’s life, barely forming any connection at all with his son; before that, he abandoned his own mother, never going back to make sure that she was protected from her abusive relationship. In these chapters, Eldon also recalls how he committed what he considers a profound betrayal of his best friend. Jimmy trusted Eldon to carry out his final wishes, and Eldon wore Jimmy’s blood into battle for strength.
Jimmy, however, sensed that he would not survive the battle and that Eldon wouldn’t follow through on his commitment. When Jimmy asked Eldon to give him a proper warrior’s burial, which was particularly important to him because his last name, Weaseltail, reflected the tradition of great warriors, Eldon merely whispered, “I guess.” Jimmy demanded that Eldon “swear like a warrior,” and Eldon did as instructed. Yet when faced with adversity, Eldon abandoned Jimmy. Not only did he end Jimmy’s life, at least in part to save his own, but he also left him on the field to be discovered by enemy forces. No one ever found Jimmy’s body, and he was therefore robbed of the burial which was so important to him. Once again, Eldon proved himself unreliable and undependable, fleeing when his best friend desperately needed him.
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