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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
The week after Christmas brings a thaw which makes a grey slush of everything. During this time, Antonia and her mother come for a visit. It is the first time Mrs. Shimerda has visited the Burdens’ house and she rushes from room to room exclaiming over their fine things and commenting to Antonia in "an envious and complaining tone." She sees all of Mrs. Burden’s pots in the kitchen and says "You got many, Shimerdas no got." Jim is disgusted with his grandmother for giving her a pot. She tells Mrs. Burden after dinner that if she had as much as Mrs. Burden, she would make better food. Jim thinks of her as a "conceited and boastful old thing, and even misfortune could not humble her." He is so annoyed that he is rude to Antonia. She tells him her father is doing very poorly. He misses the old country very much and is not happy here. Jim rudely replies that he shouldn’t have come to this country if he didn’t like it. Antonia tells him it was her mother who forced her father to emigrate to America. He tells her that her mother wants other people’s things. She replies that his grandfather is rich and should help her father. When Ambrosch became rich, he would repay everything. Jim is disgusted with the Shimerda family’s habit of putting Ambrosch on a pedestal despite is gruff rudeness with them.
As he watches Antonia and her mother leaving, he tells his grandmother of his disgust for Mrs. Shimerda. She tells him it is her poverty that brings out her bad traits and that a woman becomes greedy when she sees her children in want. She tells him to get a book out and read it to her so they can forget the Bohemians.
After three weeks of mild weather, the cattle are getting restless in the corral. Two of the big bulls begin to butt each other’s heads until they inspire this in the steers. Otto has to ride out among them with a pitchfork prodding them until they back off from each other. Soon, there’s a big storm. It begins on Jim’s eleventh birthday, January 20th. It is such a bad blizzard that they all must stay inside the house. It takes them so long to dig out of the house to get to the barn for feeding and watering the animals, that the day is over and they must begin their chores all over again.
Chapter thirteen brings another visit from the Shimerdas, this time Mrs. Shimerda and Antonia. Mrs. Burden’s tolerant remark at Jim’s disgust at Mrs. Shimerda demonstrates her broad- mindedness: "You see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in ‘em." Despite this explicit message of the text, the general impression the reader gets of immigrants from Eastern Europe is not a flattering one. It seems that Ambrosch will end up succeeding, but more out of selfishness and meanness than perseverance and kindness. The most demonized of the immigrant family is the mother, Mrs. Shimerda, who Antonia says, forced her husband to immigrate to the U.S. so her eldest son could become rich and her daughters could find good husbands. The implicit message here seems to be that they would have been better off staying in their country.
On January 22nd, Jim wakes up to a house full of excited people. Mr. Shimerda has committed suicide. His grandmother tries to protect him from the details, but he hears the full story from Jake and Otto’s account of their visit to the Shimerdas’ last night to help take care of the body. Otto says that Mr. Shimerda’s last actions were very deliberate. After dinner he bathed, put on his clean shirt, took the hunting gun, and kissed his daughters. Then instead of going hunting, he went to the barn, lied down on the bed, and shot himself in the head. Jake thinks something else might have happened. He found an ax in the barn and held it up to the hole in Mr. Shimerda’s head. When he did so, Krajiek became hysterical saying "They’ll hang me!" Otto and Grandmother don’t believe it’s possible that it could have been murder. Otto says Mr. Shimerda wouldn’t have been so deliberate in his actions to go out to the barn to be murdered.
Otto heads off to town to get the coroner from Black Hawk. Grandmother prepares food to take to the family. Jim notices that Ambrosch, who had returned with the men, is "slavishly devout." He prays over his rosary non-stop. When his grandparents’ leave, Jake thinks they look Biblical. Jake and Ambrosch follow them on horses. At that point, Jim realizes he is alone in the house and enjoys the feeling of responsibility it gives him. He loves the quiet. He tries to read "Robinson Crusoe" but finds if boring compared to his life. Then he realizes that Mr. Shimerda loved the house so much when he visited it last that his spirit has probably returned there to rest before it sets out on its journey across the ocean. Jim knows it is homesickness that killed Mr. Shimerda. He is not frightened by the thought that the spirit is in the house with him. He is very quiet so as not to disturb it. He begins to remember stories of their homeland that Antonia has told him. The images are so vivid that he wonders if they are Mr. Shimerda’s memories.
At dusk, his grandparents return. They tell of how the Shimerdas are keeping vigil over the body. Jake says Ambrosch is very upset and is especially concerned about the priest getting there. Jake tells Jim about the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, where souls go to live in torment until they can go to heaven. Jim says, "I almost know it isn’t true," but he doesn’t say that he spent the afternoon with the spirit of Mr. Shimerda. That night in bed he thinks of Purgatory and the account he has read in the Bible of Dives who was a rich man and tortured in Hell. Then he comforts himself with the thought that Mr. Shimerda was not rich and selfish and that he had only been "so unhappy that he could not live any longer."
Mr. Shimerda’s suicide perhaps doesn’t come as a shock to the reader. His sadness and homesickness have shown on his wasted appearance. His character remains consistent in the details of his death: his care in his appearance and his deliberateness of action. Jim’s boy’s perceptions carry the emotional weight of the chapter. Left at home alone, he imagines that Mr. Shimerda’s spirit is resting in his grandparents’ house, the most pleasant place in the district, until it gathers enough strength to return home. His confusion at the Shimerda’s belief that their father is in Purgatory for committing the sin of suicide only temporarily shakes his faith that Mr. Shimerda spent the afternoon with him in the empty house.