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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
Otto Fuchs returns from Black Hawk. He has reported the death to the coroner, who will reach the Shimerdas that afternoon. The priest, however, is a hundred miles away and there are no trains running that can bring him back. Fuchs brings a country mate of the Shimerdas, a young man named Anton Jelinek, who has been living in Black Hawk for a season of work. He is a very impressive young man and inspires even Grandfather to talk. Mr. Burden asks him how bad it is for the Shimerdas not to have a priest for their father. Anton tells him it is very bad indeed according to their beliefs. Mr. Burden says Protestants also believe that suicide is a great sin, but that they believe the soul will find a home with its Creator without a priest since for Protestants Christ is the only intercessor between people and God. Anton tells the story of his youth when he assisted the priest of his home to administer the Holy Sacrament to the dying soldiers during the Prussian invasion of Bohemia. He says that even though a cholera epidemic had broken out on the dying fields, he and the priest remained untouched by the disease because they carried the body and blood of God. Everyone in the household is touched by Anton’s "frank and manly faith." Grandfather says he is happy to meet a young man who thinks so seriously about these things and that he too is sure God was taking care of him and the priest on the field that day.
After dinner, they decide to let Anton Jelinek take their two farm horses to clear the road of snow so a wagon can pass through it when necessary. He wears a coyote-skin coat that his roommate, Jan Bouska, a man who had been a fur-worker in Vienna, made for him. They bring out the carpenter’s bench, and Otto Fuchs goes to work on making a coffin for Mr. Shimerda’s body. He figures for a long time on paper and then says the hardest part of his work is done. He goes to work planing and sawing wood that Grandfather had bought for re-flooring the house in the spring. Jim likes to hear the sound of the sawing and planing in the house that day. He thinks it is a cheerful sound like a promise for new things for people. He wonders why Otto Fuchs doesn’t settle down to carpentry for life since he seems so comfortable with his work. As he works, "his hands went back and forth over the boards in an eager, beneficent way as if he were blessing them."
That afternoon, Mr. Bushy, the postmaster, comes by with another neighbor, on his way to the Shimerdas. Another visitor, the brother of Widow Steavens, comes by, and then another neighbor man, the father of a German family. Everyone eagerly talks about the suicide and the disposition of the body. Catholic cemetery at Black Hawk is too far for the wagon to reach in the snow and it is unlikely that they will allow a suicide to be buried there. There is a burying ground by the Norwegian settlement which they hope will take Mr. Shimerda’s body.
When their visitors leave, they all return to the kitchen where Grandmother is cooking. Jim likes this time since it makes everyone talk more than they usually do. Grandfather is naturally a quiet man. The other men are usually so tired from work that they don’t speak much. Jim usually feels a wall of silence around him. That afternoon Fuchs tells stories of his days working on the Black Tiger Mine, especially about all the deaths. He tells Jim that one never really knows a person until one sees him or her die. He says, "Most men are game, and went without a grudge."
The postmaster stops by on his way home saying Grandfather would be bringing the coroner to spend the night. He tells them the Norwegians have refused to accept Mr. Shimerda’s body in their cemetery. This makes Grandmother very indignant. She says she’s going to get Josiah (Mr. Burden) busy arranging to set up "an American graveyard." She doesn’t want people deliberating over whether to take her body when it’s her time to die. Soon Grandfather, Anton Jelinek and the coroner arrive. The Coroner is a Civil War veteran. He seems very worried about the gash on Mr. Shimerda’s head and says if it hadn’t been for Grandfather he would have ruled it a murder, mainly on the basis of Krajiek’s guilty behavior. Jelinek tells them Mrs. Shimerda has decided she wants the body buried at the crossroads. Grandfather wants to know if this is a Bohemian custom and Anton thinks there might have been one, but he only vaguely remembers. He says he has had to promise to help her bury Mr. Shimerda there tomorrow. Grandfather agrees that they must follow Mrs. Shimerda’s wishes but that she should know there is no one in the neighborhood who will ride over the grave.
Chapter fifteen brings with it some new characters. Among them, the most important for the novel’s treatment of immigrants in the U.S. is Anton Jelinek, alone among the immigrants for inspiring the respect of Mr. Burden. Since Mr. Burden has been depicted as a man with considered opinions and a reserve with his words, his volubility with Anton Jelinek immediately inspires everyone else’s confidence in the young man. Their conference over their religious differences is interesting for another more minor theme of the novel: religious tolerance among the settlers in the west. So far we have read of the persecution of the Mormons and the difficulties the majority Protestants have in accepting the practices of Catholics. In this chapter, Cather includes the European settlers’ religious conflicts. The Norwegians refuse to have Mr. Shimerda in their graveyard. The Catholics won’t have him since he committed a mortal sin. Mrs. Burden indignantly promises to get her husband busy with the project of constructing an "American" cemetery in the spring so no one will have to deliberate over whether to bury her or hers when they die. Burying the suicide at the crossroads isn’t a religious custom, but it is a long-standing one. In their shock at this idea, the older settlers show once again the difficulties of living in harmony with each new wave of immigrants to the west.