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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
The Burdens realize things are hard for the Shimerdas, but Antonia and her sister are always lighthearted about their troubles. They often spend time playing with Jim on the prairie. One day Antonia comes to the kitchen excited to say that they have met two Russians and that her father is able to communicate with them. Her father was so happy that he laughed for the first time since being in the country. Jim has been very curious about the two Russians since they come from a place farther away even than China and since they are so aloof, not knowing any English. People have gotten the idea that one of them, Pavel, is an anarchist. Jim assumes this is only because Pavel makes wild gestures with his arms when he tries to communicate. His companion, Peter, is very short. It is Peter who the children come upon when the go to visit the two men one day.
In the summer the two men work as farm hands. Peter loves his cow and always returns home at night to milk her. Mr. Shimerda now goes to see the Russians every evening and often takes Antonia with him. When Jim, Antonia and Julka arrive, Peter is doing the wash. He takes them to see his chickens, his cow, and his garden, where he picks a bunch of watermelons. Inside, Jim sees that the two men have made a nice home for themselves, very much unlike most bachelors. Peter cuts the melons open and they eat them on the table: "Before the blade got fairly into them, they split of their own ripeness, with a delicious sound." When they make to leave, Peter runs around trying to find something to entertain them with. He gets a harmonica and plays it for them. When they leave, Peter puts ripe cucumbers in a sack for Mrs. Shimerda and sends a pail full of milk to cook then in.
The second set of foreigners Jim Burden meets are the Russians. The chapter is short and functions largely to introduce the two men and inspire a bit of suspense in the reader as to what these men’s stories are. They also serve as community for the Shimerdas.
One afternoon when it is getting colder, Jim and Antonia are having their reading lesson near the badger’s house. Antonia tells him of the veneration for the badger in her homeland. They send dogs into the badger holes to kill the badgers and the struggle is always fierce. As they sit there, the rabbits seem to be playing with them, jumping toward them and then hopping away. They hear the buzz of a grasshopper and Antonia picks it up, talks to it and makes a nest for it in her hands. It begins to chirp and it makes her laugh. She tells Jim of an old woman in her hometown, Old Hata, who sells herbs and roots which she gathers in the forest. Whenever she comes, the families take her in and she sings wonderful old songs to the children in a cracked voice just like the grasshoppers. The children always saved their sweets for her.
The afternoon is waning and Jim is amazed again and the beauty of the sunset. As they sit silently, they see her father coming along looking very sickly. Antonia is very worried about him because he as been so sick lately. She runs to him and he shows her two rabbits he has shot. He tells her he will make her a hat from the skins. He tells Jim he will one day give him his rifle, a prized possession which was given to him by a rich man who appreciated his music. Jim is always uncomfortable with the Shimerdas’ habit of giving so many gifts. He thinks that Mrs. Shimerda is always so generous, but always wants a lot in return. Mr. Shimerda hears Antonia’s story about the grasshopper and takes it from her hair listening to it with great interest. Jim thinks of how he has learned from Mr. Shimerda a fine pity for creatures. Antonia and her father leave and Jim races his shadow home.
The tragic figure of Antonia’s father is featured in this chapter. It seems that he and the sickly Pavel are two representatives of the immigrants in the novel, who carry the idea of the difficulty of making the transition to the new country. Mr. Shimerda always strikes Jim as being immensely sad. He seems to be a wise man, who pays undo respect to children and who lives his most intense life in his memory. The image of the grasshopper, almost dying but coaxed into life, according to the children’s fancies, by their tenderness, reminds one of the frailty of life. The connection to Mr. Shimerda is subtly drawn.
This chapter is also noted for its beautiful description of the landscape. It is described in reverential tones: "As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bus that burned with fire and was not consumed." Here, the image is of the burning bush in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, the one given to the Jews by God to give them faith and show them the way. In the next sentence, Cather shows another association brought up by the beauty of the land--that of epic heroes. Jim thinks of the hour of day as that which would light a great victory or a triumphant ending for some hero’s death. Notice again the fascination Jim has for death and his tendency to inscribe the landscape with fictional figures.