The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

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Chapter 1 Summary

In 1941, a ninety-one-year-old man named the Captain rides home through a timber forest on his horse. Five to ten feet of snow covers the forest floor, and the horse riding is treacherous. He’s bundled up against the harsh weather and has covered his face in petroleum jelly to protect against the wind. The journey home takes a day and a half, and the Captain rides through the night because he knows that if he stops, he could freeze to death.

Waiting for the Captain at home are Clemmie, his youngest daughter, and his grandson Henry. Over the years, the Captain has had three wives and many children, and he believes Clemmie is the one who understands him best.

Clemmie tells the Captain that she has decided to leave, telling him that she can’t wait for him to die. The Captain takes her news with resignation and offers to escort Clemmie and Henry down the mountain.

Going down the mountain, the Captain asks Clemmie whether she has ever been to the city, her current destination, and she says that she has not. Before making a treacherous crossing of a river called Twelve Mile, Henry and Clemmie say goodbye to the Captain.

In the city, Clemmie finds a job at a veteran’s hospital. She and Henry move into a small house with a kitchen. Clemmie finds it difficult to adjust to the new lifestyle—having to pay for things such as water, food, and heat—but she perseveres. She goes to night school and becomes a nurse. On Saturdays, she takes Henry to the public library to look at the books.

When they learn of Clemmie’s new life, relatives begin to pass through and visit. These are the many children of the Captain, such as Uncle Golden and Aunt Adelita. Uncle Golden stops by whenever he is flush with money, and Aunt Adelita stays with them after her husband and two sons die in a mine explosion. Eventually they learn that Uncle Golden died after a highway standoff, having shot himself in his own car.

Henry has never met his father, but he meets men from his father’s family and learns that they are all strong and highly spirited, often subject to rash fits of anger. The men in his family have traveled fear and wide, participating as laborers in some of the great public works projects of the era, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Boulder Dam, and the Holland Tunnel.

Chapter 2 Summary

When he gets older, Henry takes a job at a stable run by a man named Walter, who met Clemmie at the veteran’s hospital. Most of the horses at Walter’s stable are old and slow and ridden mainly by children. Henry forms an attachment to a cinnamon bay horse named Gaylen, who is tall, muscular, and fast. Walter claims that he has been offered a lot of money for Gaylen, but he has refused to sell the horse. A girl named Mercy, who is a year older than Henry and who attends the private school in town, is also fond of Gaylen. Mercy’s father is a powerful and wealthy judge in town.

One day in the spring, word arrives that the Captain, Henry’s grandfather and Clemmie’s father, has died. For three nights after the news, Clemmie stays up throughout the night, wandering aimlessly in a deep state of grief. Henry tries to comfort his mother, but there is little he can do to make her feel better. Clemmie asks Henry whether she should feel guilty for feeling relieved at the Captain’s death, and then says she thinks something bad is going to happen.

One rainy day, Henry is finishing his work at the stable when Walter asks him to come inside for some coffee. Henry initially declines, but Walter presses him into coming inside. The apartment where Walter lives is sparsely furnished and smells like a barn. Walter asks after Henry’s mother and says that she still looks good. Walter tells Henry that he’s going to have to go into the hospital. Walter has had knee injuries since the war, and the pain has been getting too bad lately for him to handle on his own. The doctors are going to operate on both of his knees and, with luck, cure him of his chronic pain. Walter asks Henry to manage...

(The entire section is 16,643 words.)