Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

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The man can tell by the tracks and the other imprints on the road that the men in the truck spent the night there. He walks back to where they first encountered the strangers. The man makes the boy hide in the woods as he searches for the grocery cart he had left there. When he finds it, he discovers that the cart has been emptied except for some ragged clothes and a worn-out pair of shoes. The scant remains of the boy’s toys are there too. Everything else is gone.

In the dim light, he also sees dried blood. In a corner is a pile of skin and bones. From the clues that remain, the man figures out that they must have boiled the man he had killed. From this description, readers can conclude that the strangers ate the dead man. Food is so scarce that cannibalism has set in as a survival tactic.

The boy is very frightened, hungry, and cold as more snow falls and their provisions diminish. The man insists on washing the boy in the cold river. There is blood in the boy’s hair from his father having shot the stranger in the head. Parts of the stranger’s brain are also splattered on the boy’s head. They have only one blanket now and must also worry about the strangers in the truck. However, they find shelter under a bridge and are able to build a fire. The boy falls asleep from exhaustion after eating a meager meal. The man stays up most of the night, gathering wood to keep the small fire going. In a vision he sees his brother. Not much is said about this vision; it might be the author’s way of showing the deterioration of the man’s mind.

The next night, they eat the contents of the last tin of food—pork and beans, the boy’s favorite. The man had been saving it. He wishes he had been more careful with their remaining food. He is sorry that he lost it. He reminds the boy that he had wanted to see what the bad guys looked like. Now that is done. The boy is concerned and asks if they, the father and the son, are still the good guys. His father confirms that they are. The boy accepts this with another question, wondering if this will always be true. His father assures him that they will always be the good guys.

In the light of day, the man scans the landscape ahead, looking for signs of life. Unfortunately, a sign of life could be good or bad for them. It is hard to tell from a distance. But he sees nothing moving. The boy asks to look through the binoculars. When he does, he sees some smoke. The boy points it out to his father. The man had missed it. He decides they need to take the risk of getting closer to examine the circumstances better. They need food. If the place shows signs of being a commune (which is not defined yet), they will move on. However, if the place looks like it houses a group of refugees, like themselves, they might find something to eat. They move closer.

They come to a town and rummage through stores and the trash cans behind them. But they find nothing they can use—no food, no vitamins, no shoes. The boy is very tired, but the father says they must keep looking. He comes across dead bodies in a walk-in freezer. Later they hunt through vacant houses. He removes a blanket from a corpse.

Out on the street, they hear a sound. At first they cannot identify it. Then the man recognizes the sound. It is a dog barking. They wonder how it has survived. Though the boy is hungry, he does not want to harm the animal. He asks his father if he will kill it. The father hears the empathy in his son’s voice. He promises that they will leave the dog alone.

At night, they find an abandoned car. The father had come across some new suits in a department store. The material was dusty but usable. He piles the coats on top of his son and tries to sleep. During the night, he notices flickering lights coming from some of the buildings in the city. The boy awakens and also sees the lights. He wants to know who might be living there. The father tells him that he has no idea. Then the boy asks the father if they are going to be all right. The father tries to calm the boy’s fear. He promises that they will make it. The boy says that they will make it because they carry the light. This expression is not explained. It might be something that the father had once mentioned to the boy. It might also be religious terminology. Since the father told his son that they represent the good, this might be a reference to that concept.

The next day, the man finds an old container of cornmeal. He must sift out rat excrement from the meal before they can eat it. The man makes some simple corncakes, which they eat. The snow has changed to a cold rain.

While his father is scavenging, the boy sits at the back of an empty house. When he looks up, he sees a boy, about his same age, across the street. The boy jumps up and follows the other boy, who disappears from view. He calls out to him, but the other boy does not return. He yells that he will not hurt him. His father comes running back and shouts at the boy, afraid that someone might have heard him. The boy starts crying. The father tells him that now they have to get out of there. The boy does not want to leave. He just wants to see the boy again. The father, out of anger, asks the boy if he wants to die. The boy says he does not care. This makes the father stop. He kneels down to the boy’s height and looks at him. Then he apologizes. He tells the boy never to say that.

As they continue walking, the boy talks about the little boy he had seen. He begs his father to go back. Maybe that boy is hungry. He tells his father that he would share half of his food with the other boy. Then he asks his father to go back for the dog. He believes the dog would hunt for food and share it with them. They do not go back.

They come across skulls mounted and painted at an abandoned farm. Dried blood is on the grass. While they look around for food, they hear a noise. The father makes the boy lie down. He lies over him and tells the boy not to look. In the distance the father sees a parade of men, mean looking, with steel pipes in their hands. Some of the pipes are wrapped in chain. The men are ragged. They pass by on the road, no more than 200 feet away from where the man and boy are hiding. After the men comes a wagon of goods for war. The wagon is pulled by men harnessed together. The man believes those who pull the wagon are slaves. Behind the wagon are women, some of them pregnant. The last group of people, the most haggard-looking, have dog collars around their necks. After they pass, the boy asks his father if those are the bad people. The father confirms the boy’s thoughts. Then he takes out his map and searches for another route. He thinks it is a bad sign to see so many of these people on the move.

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