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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
Jim and fifteen other country children go to school in the sod schoolhouse. He doesn’t find much of interest in his classmates, but he befriends them anyway as a way to get back at Antonia for not caring about him. Now that Mr. Shimerda has died, Ambrosch is the head of the house. Antonia and Mrs. Shimerda treat him as a demi-god and Antonia treats Jim as if he were nothing but a little boy.
One Sunday, Jim rides to the Shimerdas with Jake to pick up Jake’s horse-collar. When they get there, Ambrosch is oiling the windmill and comes to them in a peevish way. When Jake asks for his collar, Ambrosch acts rudely and goes off to get it. It is dirty and worn from ill use. Jake becomes furious and tells him he has badly used the collar. Ambrosch acts off handed again and throws the collar down on the ground. Then he begins to remount the ladder of the windmill. Jake pulls him down and begins to fight him. Ambrosch tries to kick Jake in the stomach, but misses. Jake hits Ambrosch over the head and stuns him. At that point, Antonia and Mrs. Shimerda come running and screaming. Jake and Jim get on their horses and leave. As they are leaving, Antonia tells them they are no longer friends.
On the road home, Jake tells him that foreigners are not the same and that he should keep his distance from them. Jim agrees and says he believes all foreigners are just like Krajiek and Ambrosch under the skin. When they get home, Mr. Burden is amused by the story. He tells Jake to go to town and pay a fine for hitting Ambrosch as a means of forestalling anything Mrs. Shimerda will do legally. Jake has needed to take a pig to sale, so he combines both jobs in one trip. Soon they see the Shimerdas headed for town. Ambrosch hears that Jake has sold his pig and assumes that he did so to pay the fine. All the Shimerdas are very pleased by this. When Antonia passes them afterwards, she calls out a taunt, "Jake-y, Jake-y, sell the pig and pay the slap!" Otto says this behavior confirms his ill opinion of Czech people, he being an Austrian.
Grandfather never gets involved in the feud. He and the Shimerdas remain on good terms. In June, Ambrosch and Marek go to town to work for Mr. Bushy. Antonia and Mrs. Shimerda take care of both the indoor and outdoor work. One night, Antonia finds one of her horses had come down with colic. She goes to get Mr. Burden who uses a syringe to release the gas from the horse’s stomach. Before the horse has recovered, Antonia tells him she would rather kill herself than report to Ambrosch that the horse has died. Later they find out that Ambrosch gave all of Marek’s earnings to the priest to pray for his father’s soul. Everyone is scandalized at the waste, but Grandfather who says it proves Ambrosch believes what he professes.
One day Mr. Burden tells his wife he plans to ask Ambrosch to come and work for him during the reaping and threshing of his grain. He tells her to hire Antonia to work in the house with her as a way to end misunderstandings. Jim rides with him to the Shimerdas. When they get there, they see Mrs. Shimerda rushing to the back of the house. They walk around to find her trying to push the cow into the shed to hide it from them. Mr. Burden acts as if he sees nothing and tells her he wants to hire Ambrosch and Antonia. As he is walking away, he tells her she can have the cow without paying what she owes him for her. Mrs. Shimerda is overwhelmed with gratitude and bends down to kiss his hand. Jim feels as if the "Old World" has come close to them in that moment. Jim and his grandfather ride away laughing at Mrs. Shimerda. Mr. Burden jokes about the possibility that Mrs. Shimerda would have scratched him if he had tried to take the cow away from her. The next Sunday Mrs. Shimerda comes over with a pair of socks she has knitted for Jake. She asks him if he will no longer come and knock Ambrosch down. He says he will leave Ambrosch alone if Ambrosch leaves him alone. Mrs. Shimerda says that if Ambrosch slaps Jake, they have no pig to pay the fine. Jake says she can have the last word since that is "a lady’s privilege."
The feud with the Shimerdas and the reconciliation brought about by Mr. Burden show the tenuous relationship between the immigrants and the more established settlers. Jake falls back immediately on his old prejudices, warning Jim that foreigners are not the same, as if not being the same is a self-evident reason for being worse than. Jim has learned his anti-immigrant lessons well. He immediately concludes that all foreigners are as bad as the worst of the foreigners--Krajiek and Ambrosch. The cultural differences between the two groups are evident, but are not overtly discussed in the text. For example, it is clear that in Jake’s culture it is ignoble to kick an opponent in a fight. There seems to be no such rule for Ambrosch.
Grandfather’s magnanimous decision to end the feud by having Ambrosch and Antonia work for him offers insights into what it is that keeps him so cool about the Shimerdas’ peculiarities. He plays the patron to their role as peasants. He chuckles at Mrs. Shimerda’s attempt to hide the cow and gives it to her in an off- handed way. He brings Ambrosch and Antonia back into friendly relations by placing them in the role of his workers.
In July, Jim enjoys the beauty of the earth, the growing corn that seems to grow so fast, and the heat lightening on the horizon in the evenings. Antonia is working for his grandmother in the house and so the whole household is more cheerful. Antonia always accompanies him out to the garden in the evenings to gather vegetables. Grandmother insists that she wear a sunbonnet, but as soon as she gets out to the garden, Antonia takes it off. She tells Jim she likes outdoor work better than indoor work. She doesn’t care that Mrs. Burden says this kind of work makes her like a man. "I like to be like a man," she tells Jim. One night they are outside watching the sheet lightening. Antonia says how she wishes her father were there to see the plentiful summer. Jim asks her why she isn’t always nice like she is now instead of trying always to be like Ambrosch. She responds that if she lived at the Burdens’ where everything was easy, she would be able to be. She knows winter will be hard for her family.
In this brief last chapter of the first book, Cather brings Jim and Antonia back together for a moment of meditative communion. Jim likes being able to be close to Antonia. He doesn’t understand the economic facts of her life and how her family’s poverty makes it impossible for her to linger as his friend. Antonia does realize this. She explains in the last words of the chapter that if her life were easy, she would have the leisure to be as he likes her to be.