Old Woman Magoun Summary
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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Old Woman Magoun Summary

Freeman's short story begins with Old Woman Magoun declaring that the bridge in Barry's Ford will be built by summer.

We learn that Old Woman Magoun is a highly respected citizen of the hamlet of Barry's Ford. It's her resilience and strong influence that inspire the men to build the bridge. Her friend, Sally Jinks, expresses her surprise that men have to drink and chew tobacco to get anything accomplished.

Meanwhile, Old Woman Macoun is filled with contempt at the men in her town. She especially loathes Nelson Barry, her son, who lives with his half-witted sister, Isabel.

Nelson's daughter, Lily Barry, lives with her (Old Woman Macoun). The older woman is especially protective of her granddaughter and never allows her to go to the village store. This is because Nelson and a host of degenerate men often frequent the place.

As for Lily, she is nearly fourteen and has an innocent beauty that impresses everyone who sees her. Sally Jinks maintains that Old Woman Magoun is far too protective of her granddaughter, but the older woman ignores her criticism.

One day, while preparing a pig roast for the men (as a reward for finishing the bridge), Old Woman Magoun runs out of salt. Sally Jinks suggests sending Lily. The older woman is initially dismayed at the suggestion but soon relents.

Lily heads to the store, with her rag doll slung across her shoulders. On the way to the store, she is approached by a strange, handsome man. He chats Lily up but makes her feel uncomfortable.

At the store, Lily sees her father Nelson Barry, who speaks to her and exclaims at her beauty. He sends her home with candy, which distresses Old Woman Magoun. Not long after, Nelson Barry heads over to the Magoun home to speak to his mother. He demands custody of Lily and tells Old Woman Magoun that he will come for Lily in a week. During their conversation, Nelson also lets on that Jim Willis (his ne'er-do-well associate) is the man who spoke to Lily on her way to the store.

Upon hearing this, Old Woman Magoun accuses Nelson of losing at cards to Jim Willis and offering up Lily as payment for his loss.

Distressed at her son's behavior, the old lady heads over to speak to Lawyer Mason in Greenham, a few miles across the bridge. Her intention is to ask him to adopt Lily.

Along the way to Greenham, Lily and Old Woman Magoun comes across a stone wall overgrown with blackberry vines and next to it, a deadly nightshade plant with gorgeous berries. Lily asks to partake of the colorful berries but her grandmother demurs.

Later, on the way home, Old Woman Magoun says nothing when Lily does eat the berries from the poisonous nightshade plant. Her plan for saving Lily in tatters (for Lawyer Mason refuses to adopt the girl), Old Woman Magoun submits bitterly to fate.

When Nelson Barry comes for Lily, he finds her dead. Old Woman Magoun blames the sour apples and milk Lily ate at the lawyer's home for the young girl's death. No one is the wiser, but Old Woman Magoun never forgets her granddaughter. Whenever she heads over to Greenham to sell her garden vegetables, she always carries Lily's old rag doll with her.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Old Woman Magoun is a poor but powerful citizen of the small hamlet of Barry’s Ford, as can be seen when she influences the men of the village to build a bridge across the Barry River. A hard worker herself, she has little respect for men or for their dependence on alcohol and tobacco. As she explains to her friend Sally Jinks, “I’ve worked all my life and never done nuther.”

Old Woman Magoun has lived alone with her granddaughter Lily Barry since the death of Lily’s mother a week after Lily was born, nearly fourteen years ago. Lily’s father is Nelson Barry, who lives with his half-witted sister, Isabel, but spends most of his time at the village store leading the “shiftless” element of the village. He has taken no interest in his daughter in the past, and local rumor has questioned whether Lily is legitimately his daughter, as Old Woman Magoun claims.

As the story...

(The entire section is 1,223 words.)