Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839
The Neumiller and Jones families live on neighboring farms in rural North Dakota. Martin Neumiller, in love with Alpha Jones, visits her parents’ home on New Year’s Eve to propose marriage. A fierce winter storm kicks up, the wind howls, the temperature drops below zero, and snow piles up to the axle hubs on Martin’s Model A Ford. Alpha Jones accepts her suitor’s proposal, but Martin is still uneasy about what her parents think of him. Because of the bad weather, Alpha’s mother reluctantly agrees to let Martin sleep overnight on the sofa. Martin’s anxiety over Alpha’s parents confuses him, causing him to doubt whether Alpha has actually accepted his marriage offer. As he drops off to sleep, he thinks about what has happened that day.
Martin says prayers before going to sleep: Hail Marys, a decade of the rosary, the Our Father, and an Act of Contrition. The Neumillers are a devout Roman Catholic family—which may explain why Martin’s and Alpha’s parents have never been in each others’ houses although they live only five miles apart. Martin’s mother thinks Alpha’s father, Ed, is a devil and an insane atheist. Martin’s parents have often seen Ed Jones walking along the railroad tracks into town, his gray hair wildly flying in the wind and his eyes full of devious animal energy as he sings obscene songs and disrupts the quiet countryside.
Ed walks into town because he does not have a car and does not want to wear out his horses just so he can go out and get drunk. Ed has told Charles that getting drunk is his only release; Ed says he is killing himself trying to rid his farm of the quack grass that is choking the wheat crop. He has tried cutting, burning, and digging, but nothing seems to help. Ed feels he was duped after buying the old Hollingsworth farm and discovering its poor soil. The farm has been put under the plow for only ten years and needs more work to make it productive. Drinking is Ed’s way of running away from his problems on the farm—the impending loss of his daughter, a difficult relationship with his wife, the lack of sons to help him, and his inability to fight quack grass. After hearing this, Charles tells his family nothing is wrong with Ed Jones. Martin’s mother disagrees and tells Charles and Martin to stay away from Ed because they will be judged by the company they keep.
Alpha’s mother was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, known for its strict observance of ritual. She believes that every Catholic is up to no good. Ed Jones seems outwardly nonreligious and more open to Martin’s courtship of Alpha. Ed claps Martin on the shoulder during his visits and calls him “boy.” Outside the house, Ed discusses politics, government, horses, and his low opinion of mechanized farming. Ed thinks horses can do all farmwork and is proud of his team; he even worries over the condition of the barn where the horses sleep. Inside the Joneses’ home, however, Ed is taciturn and silent.
Ed echoed his wife’s anti-Catholic feelings once as Martin listened in the next room. Ed may have been getting drunk with one of his friends when he yelled that Catholics were sanctimonious and hypocritical. Ed has warned Alpha against marriage to a Catholic, because the union would create many children. Alpha has told Martin that her father’s angry remarks do not mean anything.
When Martin wakes up the morning after the storm, Ed is stomping around the house; Ed has been awake since 4 a.m. fixing a rattling windmill and sheltering the livestock. Ed has awakened Martin so he can help him pull his car out of a snowdrift. Ed irritates Martin because he turns Martin out before he has a chance to say good-bye to Alpha and confirm her acceptance of his proposal. Ed protests that Martin moves too slowly and the day is getting on.
Martin dresses and goes outside with Ed. It is still nearly dark, despite Ed’s frenzied call to arms. Martin’s fingertip becomes frozen to a metal buckle on his overshoes as he tries to put them on, further angering him. Martin decides now is the time to speak to Ed about his desire to marry Alpha.
Ed stops Martin short, saying he already knows about Martin’s plans to marry. Alpha stayed up all night because of her excitement and told her family. The reason Ed has roused Martin so early, which was not obvious to the suitor, was to get Martin to church on time. Ed assures Martin that their marriage will work out, despite the two families’ differences. Ironically, it is Ed, not his churchgoing wife, who remembers it is the Sabbath. The story ends with the apparently atheistic, possibly alcoholic father asking the pious Martin, “Do you think I might be Christian?”
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