Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
As the story opens Sarah Penn asks her husband why men are digging in a nearby field. Adoniram Penn tries to avoid answering. Sarah compels her husband to reveal that the men are digging a cellar for a new barn on the very spot where Adoniram had promised to build a new house for the family.
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Sarah goes back into her house, which is much smaller than the barn that already stands on the property. She learns from her son, Sam, that Adoniram is building the new, larger barn to house more livestock which he plans to buy. As they wash and dry dishes, her engaged daughter, Nanny, says that it’s ‘‘too bad’’ that her father is building a new barn when the family needs a decent house. Sarah tells Nanny that the ways of ‘‘men-folks’’ differ greatly from those of women and are beyond understanding. When Nanny goes on to wish for a parlor in which to entertain guests, her mother insists that there is nothing wrong with receiving visitors in a nice clean kitchen, and reminds her daughter that many people live in worse circumstances.
Sarah confronts her husband with her belief that their house is inadequate. She reminds Adoniram that when they were married, forty years earlier, he promised her a fine new house on the very site where the new barn is under construction. And despite her defense of her ‘‘nice clean kitchen,’’ she echoes Nanny’s wish for a parlor for the upcoming wedding. Adoniram refuses to discuss the matter with her, and Sarah declares that it is because he cannot speak without acknowledging that she is in the right.
Later, as Nanny sits in the kitchen sewing, she tells her mother she will be ashamed and embarrassed to have the wedding in their small, shabby kitchen. Her mother tries to console her with the thought that she may be able to put up new wallpaper by then. Nanny, half-jokingly and half-angrily, suggests that they hold the wedding in the new barn. Sarah Penn receives the comment thoughtfully.
Throughout the spring, the barn steadily goes up. The week before Adoniram plans to move the livestock into it, he leaves home for three or four days to look into the purchase of a new horse. All that morning, Sarah is preoccupied—her eyes are doubtful and her forehead is puckered. She talks to herself, working out some problem, and then suddenly announces that her husband’s absense from home just then ‘‘look like a providence,’’ that is, a beneficent act of God.
When men deliver a load of hay ordered for the new barn, Sarah instructs them to put it in the old barn instead. After the midday meal, Sarah has her children pack up their belongings as she loads the contents of the kitchen into a basket. She oversees the move of all the furniture, the stove, and their belongings of the house, across the field, and into the new barn. She hangs quilts in front of the box stalls to make bedrooms, and the harness room, ‘‘with its chimney and shelves,’’ becomes ‘‘the kitchen of her dreams.’’
News of the unusual move spreads through town. Neighbors speculate that Sarah Penn is either mad or ‘‘lawless and rebellious.’’ The minister pays an ineffectual visit: she insists to him that the doings in her household are between herself, the Lord and her husband. On the day that Adoniram is due home, many of the townspeople gather on the road to witness his homecoming. Adoniram goes first to the house, then the shed—which now houses one of the new cows that the old barn cannot accomodate. He leads his horse to the new barn. And when he opens the doors, he finds his family inside.
Adoniram is very surprised. Sarah takes him aside and tells him calmly that the family has come to live in the barn. She says he must put in some windows and partitions and buy some new furniture. Adoniram seems to be in shock, barely responding as his wife helps him take off his jacket and urges him to wash up for dinner while their son leads the new horse to the old barn. After dinner, Sarah finds Adoniram crying. He promises to make any improvements to the barn that Sarah has asked for. He tells her that he had no idea she was so set on a new house.