Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2225
Eleven-year-old Eldon lives on a farm in northern Minnesota, on the edge of a forest which reaches clear up to Hudson's Bay. His family of six inhabits a two-story wooden house with white board siding. In the house, under the eaves, there are two rooms. Eldon and his elder brother, Wayne, share one of them. Two "very old" Norwegian men, Uncle David and Nels, occupy the other. Downstairs, there are four rooms—the kitchen, the bedroom where Father and Mother sleep, a dining room that no one ever uses, and a living room, which is comfortably furnished with a sofa, chairs, and a wood stove. The living room is also called the winter room; it is where the family spends much of their time in the winter.
Corn, oats, barley, flax, and wheat are grown on the farm, which spreads over eighty-seven cleared acres. There are two granaries and a barn on the property, which were built before Eldon's grandfather arrived there from the "old country." In the barn, there is a hayloft, a manger, calf pens, a silage pit, and a separator room, where cream is taken from the milk given by the dairy cows and then sold in town. In addition to the cows, the family owns two work horses, Jim and Stacker, who are gentle and so big that Wayne and Eldon must climb up their legs to harness them.
Life on the farm is defined by the seasons. Many people think that spring is a time of awakening, but in Eldon's opinion, springtime is "when everything gets soft and it's an awful mess." The bodies of dead animals that have been thrown in a frozen pile during the winter begin to thaw and draw maggots. The defrosting manure and slop that have collected around the barn is so deep that the cows actually have to lunge through to get to solid ground. The calves are born in early spring, however, and it is because of this that Uncle David calls the season "the best time there is." It is Wayne and Eldon's job to train the new calves to drink from buckets. The boys get the calves to suck on their small fingers, then draw their hands down into the container. Most calves quickly learn in this way to take the milk directly from the bucket.
Summer is a time for work. The season begins when Father takes the plowshares to town to be sharpened. He then goes over and over the fields with them to break down the soil until it is "as smooth as cake batter." Eldon accompanies Mother when she brings Father's lunch out to the fields, and sometimes, when the meal is done, Father will let him ride the tractor. Eldon is not yet allowed to help with the hard work on the farm, because he had been sickly when he was younger. Although he is fine now, his parents want him to "take it easy" until he is a little bit older.
During haying time, Eldon helps his brother shape the hay into stacks. Then, it is time to thrash, which is a very grueling task that involves separating the grain from the straw. Wayne and Eldon enjoy jumping from the barn roof into the straw pile; sometimes Father allows them to have a whole day of it. When the thrashing is done, it is time to hay again, and the silo must be filled with enough corn and feed to sustain the animals through the winter. There is so much to do that sometimes the work is not done until ten o'clock at night. Just when it seems that the summer will never end, Father hitches Jim and Stacker to the hayrack one morning and announces that everyone is going to the lake. It is finally fall.
Fall starts wonderfully, with a picnic for the family. Father cooks some steaks or pork chops on the grill, and Mother brings pies and potato salad. Afterwards, the boys swim in the lake, while the adults relax and reminisce. There is a lot to like about fall, when the barn is full of hay and "everything is done...almost everything." Eldon, however, mostly hates fall because it is a time of killing.
First, the steer must be shot, and its carcass hoisted to the barn ceiling with a pulley so that the meat can be butchered. Then, the pigs' throats must be cut. Father says that it is necessary for them to bleed out completely, so they cannot be shot beforehand. The pigs "scream and scream" as they bleed out and die, and Eldon thinks this is the worst part of it. He often hears their terrible shrieks echoing in his dreams. Father says, "It's the way of it...something has to die so we can live," and even though Eldon knows these things must be done, he "can't help thinking it's wrong." Eldon knows that the men do not like what they have to do either, because Father, Uncle David, and Nels are always silent while they are doing the killing.
There is a brief time of waiting when the slaughter is over, all the crops are in, and the leaves are off the trees. Then, one night, the first snow falls, and all of a sudden, there are "a million snow things to do." Eldon and Wayne slide down the river hill on grain shovels, build snow forts, and ride an old piece of tin roofing Father has hitched up behind Stacker. Winter covers up the things that are seen during the rest of the year and makes everything seem different. The days are short, and after supper, Father lights the stove and everyone gathers in the winter room. Mother knits socks and mittens, while Father works on his carvings. Wayne and Eldon settle in comfortably by the stove. Uncle David and Nels fill their lower lips with "snoose," and Uncle David tells stories, beginning with the one about Alida.
Alida was a beautiful woman, with clear blue eyes the color of ice, and yellow hair "like cornsilk mixed with sunlight" coiled into a braid at the back of her head. She became Uncle David's wife in the "old country," and he loved her so dearly, he could not imagine ever living without her. Uncle David and Alida had planned to come to America, but Alida was soon with child. It was a "wrong birth," and the child died, as did Alida, taking a great part of Uncle David with her. After his wife was gone, the grief-crazed man took to wandering like a mad person in the snow, but he was saved by his brother Nels, who brought him to America. Uncle David never remarried, and after all this time, he says that his heart has never healed.
Uncle David also tells the story of Orud the Terrible. It is a tale from the "old times, when men went off in long boats and many did not come back." The most terrible of these men was Orud the Red, and when he went "a-viking," he was feared even by the stalwart men in his own crew. Orud had never taken a wife, until once, on a voyage, he found "a woman of beauty" named Melena, who lived in a house along the sea. Another man wanted her too, but Orud fought with him, and the competing suitor was slain. Orud was not noble in victory; he would not show his respect to his adversary by granting him a proper Viking funeral. On the way home, he tied Melena in the bow of the longboat so she could not escape. Melena, however, was smart and strong, and as her captor's boat reached his village, she magically released herself from her bonds and leaped into the sea. Enraged, Orud jumped into the water after her. Forgetting that he was wearing his full armor and sword, he sank to the bottom of the ocean and was never seen again. It is said that Orud found Melena there beneath the water and that he took her as his wife against her will. In anger, Melena cursed the village so that its people sickened, its crops died, and whenever its men tried to go "a-viking" from then on, their boats sank again and again.
Another of Uncle David's favorite stories is one about Crazy Alen, a man who loved to play practical jokes. Alen was fired from his job as a woodcutter because of one of his pranks, but he ended up making friends with the foreman, the very man who let him go, nonetheless. The two men enjoyed a year of friendship, during which Alen's machinations never stopped. At the end of that time, Alen felt that his death was approaching, and he decided to play the biggest joke of all. Crazy Alen was a big man, and just before he died, he lay down on the floor of his cabin with his arms and legs stretched out to the four corners of the room, as wide as he could get them. His body froze solid in that position, and when the foreman found him, he had to cut the door opening to get his dead friend out of the cabin. The poor foreman had to roll, drag, and cartwheel Crazy Alen's spread-eagled body all the way back into town.
Eldon does not think death is funny, but he cannot help but laugh at this tale of Crazy Alen. Uncle David's stories are this way, not to be questioned, until he tells the one that almost ruins everything.
Uncle David relates that when he first came to the "new country," he knew a man who was "such a wonder with an ax" that his exploits became legendary. This man could take a four-foot piece of cordwood and swing two axes simultaneously into its ends so that the wood would split cleanly into two parts with one stroke, with the axes meeting in the middle. There were many other amazing things this man could do, and while Uncle David is telling about them, Father interrupts, commenting, "But that was you." Wayne stiffens in anger as Uncle David pauses momentarily in his account, then goes on to finish the story, concluding that the man had thought his strength and vitality would last forever, only to see it fade away with time and age. That night, Wayne is silent as he goes to bed, and Eldon does not understand why he is so upset.
The next day, when they have finished their chores in the barn, Wayne reveals the nature of his discontent to his brother. Wayne says that all of Uncle David's stories are lies, that the old man makes himself out to be a hero, and that his tales amount to nothing more than bragging. So great is Wayne's disillusionment, that he begins to cry, ranting over and over, "He's a liar, a liar, a liar." Horrified, Eldon sees that Uncle David is just outside, listening to it all, but he cannot make his brother stop until it is too late. Eldon and Wayne watch as Uncle David "seem[s] to cave in" and becomes "broken." For many days, there are no more stories; the old man sits silently and spiritlessly during the family's customary evening sojourn in the winter room.
Eldon is furious with his brother for what he has done to Uncle David, and finally, on the fifth day, his anger explodes. While they are up in the hayloft, he leaps upon Wayne and begins pummeling him ferociously, but Wayne, being bigger, soon pins his younger brother down and restrains him. The attention of both boys is diverted when they see Uncle David outside, through a gap in the wall. The old man is staring at a pile of wood, then suddenly goes into the granary and returns with two axes. It is clear what he is planning to do.
Eldon's first inclination is to go out and stop him so that he does not hurt himself, but Wayne tells him to be still, making Eldon understand that the most terrible thing of all would be to keep Uncle David from at least trying. With morbid fascination, the boys watch as the old man looks upward at the sun, and they are amazed to see that his wrinkles appear to fade as the light shines on his face. His body seems to fill with an undefinable strength, and Wayne whispers almost prayerfully, "He's young again." Uncle David stands before a great log, and raises both axes in the air. He then brings them down with a mighty force, and the axes enter into the opposite ends of the log, splitting it neatly in two. Both boys are crying, and Eldon wants to go out and celebrate Uncle David's feat, but Wayne holds him back, wisely observing, "No. It was for him...if we go down there it will ruin everything."
Wayne, of course, is right, and as the boys watch with tears running down their faces, the uncanny power goes out of Uncle David, and he becomes again as he was, "bent and old and tired." But that night, when the family gathers in the winter room, he tells his stories again, beginning with the one about Alida.
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