Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306
The story begins with fourteen-year old David trying to adjust to his family's move to Firetown. He is a bookish kid, and he peruses books as he tries to shelve them in an orderly way in the new house.
His father is a teacher, and the family has moved to a rural area, to the farm where his mother grew up. Her mother (David's grandmother) lives with them. The family is beset by tension. The grandmother has Parkinson's disease, and the mother is stressed from caring for her. The father tries to escape the domestic tension through working.
David contemplates death and religion. He finds both subjects unsettling. He is also uneasy about living in the country, being unfamiliar with it. The mother and father have an ongoing disagreement about chemicals; the mother wants to farm organically, but the father believes in the necessity of chemical intervention. He has little respect for men who farm the land.
David tries to get answers from his pastor to reconcile his rational thoughts with matters of faith. The pastor is unable to help him reconcile those feelings and becomes defensive. David concludes that organized religion is empty but enjoys the thought of salvation. His mother tells him that mankind created God, and David rejects the idea. He is preoccupied with the idea that death is final, and he hopes that there will be an afterlife.
David is told by his mother and grandmother to shoot the pigeons that are fouling the barn and the furniture stored there. David shoots a number of pigeons and then, at his mother's direction, buries them. In looking closely at the intricacy of the markings on the pigeons as he buries them, David seems to come to some answers about God, creation, and death that in some way answer his questions and comfort him.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951
During the year of his life that this story covers, David Kern must come to grips with many things that are changing and chaotic. The external action of the story is concerned with his family’s move from Olinger to a farm, his mother’s birthplace but an unfamiliar world for David and his father. Besides the usual adjustments—to a new school, a new youth group at church—David must also deal with dissension between his parents about the move. His mother loves the farm and feels a deep kinship with the soil. His father, on the other hand, is uncomfortable there. Bitter and sarcastic, he tries to reduce every argument to chemistry, his college major and, presumably, the subject he teaches. Further complicating the family’s life is the presence of Granmom, who used to work this farm with her husband but is now crippled and bewildered by Parkinson’s disease. She irritates her daughter and seems always to be in the way.
These external conflicts closely parallel the internal action of the story. David is moving away from the safe, easily understood attitudes of childhood toward a confrontation with frightening and confusing adult realities. At first, this movement is only a formless dread of change. As the story progresses, however, it becomes a specific fear that death is absolute and final, thereby negating any meaning in life.
The story opens on Saturday of the second week after the move to the farm. David tries to work off some of his disorientation by arranging the family’s books, mostly old college texts and novels that belonged to his mother. He opens H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920)—he had once read Wells’s The Time Machine (1895)—and reads Wells’s account of Jesus: an obscure political agitator who by some accident survived his own crucifixion and became, thereby, the central figure in a myth that grew into a church. That God had allowed such blasphemy to exist and to be recorded in a book seems, to David’s shocked mind, to give it credibility and to cast other long-held but unproven ideas into doubt. He has never been visited by Christ. Even answered prayers could have been coincidences.
Later that same evening, while his mother and father are conducting an endless argument about organic farming, David, still distracted by the formless dread that is growing within his shocked, disillusioned mind, takes a flashlight and visits the outhouse. The image of an insect that alights on the lens and is projected by the flashlight with an X ray’s magnification onto the wall seems, to David, an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground down which one’s body passes until it mixes with deep underground stone and dirt. This revelation of extinction is so frightening that all of his earlier dread coalesces into absolute terror. He races back to the house, where his mother and father are still arguing, and goes immediately to Webster’s Dictionary, where he looks up “soul.” He finds some comfort in its careful stipulation that the soul is “usually held to be separate in existence” from the body, and from death.
This assurance does not stay, however, and David’s search for some proof that will justify the hope that something about human existence outlasts death dominates the remaining episodes of the story. His disillusionment deepens as he confronts the traditional sources of knowledge: his minister, the Bible, his parents. He disturbs the adolescent politeness of his catechism class by asking the Reverend Mr. Dobson about the status of the soul’s awareness during the interval between death and the Day of Judgment. The minister’s pat answer, accompanied by his assurance that such things do not really matter in the eyes of God, angers David. He believes that Christianity has betrayed him. Later, he can find no answers in his grandfather’s Bible. His mother, who urges him to talk about his experience with the Reverend Mr. Dobson, suggests that he will feel differently about such things when he is older and more experienced.
David’s father’s sardonic advice is to look forward to death because life itself is only a curse to be endured. Nowhere—not in crowds of adults, in religious services and writings, in school, not even in pinball or the vigorously destructive chores with which he assists his father that winter—can he find any clues or hints that help him defend against his fear of death.
Ironically, Granmom’s request that he use the Remington .22 rifle that he got for his fifteenth birthday to rid the barn of pigeons who are nesting there precipitates the climax of David’s preoccupation with death. Although initially hesitant to shoot anything living, he finds the killing of the pigeons strangely exciting. He kills the first as it is outlined against a hole in the barn’s roof. When the others, disturbed by the report, head for the escape hole, he fires again and again. He kills six pigeons in what seems a frenzy of firing, pumping a full clip of eight bullets into the lifeless body of one of the pigeons that blocks the hole. Afterward, as he buries the dead pigeons, he examines the complex geometric patterns of blue, gray, lilac, white, and salmon feathers. He finds in the intricate design of the birds’ wings the natural order he has been seeking. Suddenly, this is the proof he has needed to justify his hope that death is not final. Surely “the God who had lavished such craft on these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
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