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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
It begins to snow in early December. Otto Fuchs makes a sled for Jim out of a wooden goods-box. Jim hooks the sled up to his horse and goes to pick up Antonia and Julka. The girls arenít dressed for the winter, so they are cold the whole time, but still, they are thrilled to be outside having fun instead of stuck inside their cave of a house being scolded by their mother all day long. The three of them ride out to Pavel and Peterís old house. By the time they come home, it is getting dark and the wind is up. Jim lets them off at their house and hurries home, but he is so chilled that he gets a cold that keeps him inside for two weeks.
The basement kitchen is a warm and safe place in a very cold world. The men are out working all day long. Jim is amazed at their dedication to their tasks. He stays inside and reads "Swiss Family Robinson" and thinks his own life in Nebraska is much more adventurous. When the men come in at night, they have to work all evening to get the chill out of their bones. Jim can still remember the way Jake and Otto looked as they sat, slumped with fatigue, and rubbed mutton tallow onto their cracked hands. Fuchs has had many jobs: cowboy, stage-driver, bartender and miner. Jake isnít as smart as Fuchs. He is almost illiterate. He has a terrible temper that sometimes makes him seem crazy. He is also extremely softhearted. If he accidentally curses in front of Mrs. Burden, he mopes around shame-faced for days afterwards. The two men work very hard and never complain. Jim wonders why they never became anything more than workers.
One night Otto tells the story of when he came to the United States. One of his relatives asked him to take care of a woman who was crossing on the same ship as he was. She had two children and another on the way. Midway across the ocean, she gave birth to triplets. Everyone on board looked at Otto as if he were responsible for some monstrous thing. Even when they arrived in the U.S. and her husband saw the big family, he looked at Otto as if it were his fault. Mrs. Burden told him God had probably taken good care of him in recompense for that difficult trip.
The reader will notice that the novel proceeds very gradually according to the seasons. In chapter 9, the characters arrive at winter. The technique of structuring a novel on the seasons is certainly not a new one, but for Catherís subject, it is especially apt. The winter of Nebraska is rendered with such clear descriptions, the reader can identify with the characters in their chill. Cather describes the cold in several ways. First, the Shimerda girls are ill dressed for the cold and cannot get warm even under the buffalo hides. Their poverty will hurt much more in the winter. Jim Burden gets sick for two weeks. He and his grandmother watch as the men come in from work so cold that it takes them all evening to warm themselves.
Another item of note in this chapter is the circle made in the ground by the Native Americans who rode their horses there. The traces of the people who came before is treated as without a sense of the history of European displacement of Indians, but with the European-American point of view of them. The two workers, Otto Fuchs and Jake, have clearly been influenced by all the many forms of propaganda which aided in the destruction of Native Americans. They like to imagine that the Indians rode around in a circle around their torture victims. Grandpa, on the other hand, says it is likely that they were merely training their horses or running races there. Jim himself is stirred by the sight of it, but only in a vague way. He thinks of it as a good omen for the winter.
Jimís family hears nothing about the Shimerdas for several weeks until Otto Fuchs reports having seen Mr. Shimerda out hunting with rabbit skin for a muffler and Jake reports having seen Ambrosch with several prairie dogs he had shot wanting to know if they were good to eat. Grandmother is alarmed that they are eating the rodents and decides to visit them with food and supplies.
When they get inside the Shimerdasí home, they find everyone huddled around very cold in the stifling room. Mrs. Shimerda becomes hysterical, rushing around the room showing them her need. They have no food and only one coat between all of them. Mrs. Burden is embarrassed by Mrs. Shimerdaís display. They see that Antonia and Julka sleep in a hole in the ground. They find out that the family didnít plant potatoes for winter and is eating the postal clerkís rotten refuse. Mr. Shimerda comes over and tells them that in Bohemia they were a respectable family who had plenty of money. They had come with a thousand dollars and still have a little, but they had lost a great deal in getting settled. When Jake comes in with the provisions, the family gathers around excitedly. Antonia tells them her father plans to build them a new house in the spring and that he and Ambrosch have already cut the logs.
On the way home, Jim listens to Mrs. Burden and Jakeís conversation. She tells him that she must remember that as Christians they are their brothersí keepers. She adds ruefully that some of their brothers are more difficult to keep than others. With the Shimerdas, one doesnít know where to begin since they need everything. She asks Jakeís opinion about Ambroschís abilities. Jake says Ambrosch is a hard worker but is a mean person. Before they left the house, Mrs. Shimerda had given them a package of something very precious. Mrs. Burden didnít like the look of it and so when she got home, she never used it in her cooking. Jim writes that he later learned that it was dried mushrooms and imagines that they come from some deep Bohemian forest.
While Mrs. Burden tries not to judge her neighbors for their ignorance about preparing for winter, she does do so. When she learns that they are eating rodents, she realizes their great need and rushes over to help them. Itís interesting that the sight of poverty for Mrs. Burden is embarrassing. As Jim notices, she maintains her Virginia womanís sense of decorum while Mrs. Shimerda hysterically catalogues all her woes as a woman stuck in the Midwest in winter. The Shimerdas have no food and did not plan for winter, so they have no prospects of getting food. The sight of their extreme need probably makes Mrs. Burden feel a weight of responsibility which she is not sure she can fulfill. Her reaction is to judge them for their foolishness in not planning better. The novel makes several references to class differences. When it does, the tacit assumption is that class differences result from the ignorance, foolishness, or shortsightedness of those on the bottom.