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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 2 - THE HIRED GIRLS
Jim often meets Lena Lingard downtown. She likes to talk about the dresses she is making and all the things she sees and hears about when she is with her friend Tony Soderball at the hotel, The Boys’ Home, in town. The Boys’ Home is the most popular place in town for the traveling salesmen. Sunday night was their big night of partying, playing the piano, singing, and telling stories.
One week before Christmas, Jim runs into Lena and her younger brother Chris shopping for Christmas presents. Chris shows Jim all the presents and he and Lena discuss the last purchase for their mother. He wants to buy her handkerchiefs but can’t decide if they should be inscribed with "B" for Berthe, her first name, or "M" for "Mother." Lena advises him to choose the ones with "B" since their mother will appreciate him thinking of her name since no one ever calls her by her name any more. When he leaves, Lena wipes tears away and says she really misses her family.
Chapter 5 brings out another aspect of Lena Lingard’s nature, her love for her mother and her siblings. She is drawn to the exciting life of the town, but she also misses her family.
Winter comes to Black Hawk with ferocity. Jim and all the other children run from place to place to hurry out of the cold. When he comes home, he goes straight to the Harlings unless Mr. Harling is at home. If he is, Jim goes to his grandparents’ house and reads a book. On most nights, life at the Harlings is a wonderful time. They act charades, sing, dance, and tell stories. Antonia thrives on life at the Harlings, saying it feels like she’s in heaven. She is never too tired to make something sweet for any one of the children who hints that she or he wants something.
One night Antonia tells a story of the threshing machine at the Norwegian settlement. One threshing season when she was working on the thresher, a man came out of the blue and started talking to her like she knew him. He seemed very strange. He told her none of the ponds was deep enough to drown a person in. He wanted some beer but there was none available. He called up to Ole Iverson on the threshing machine to let him have a go at it. Ole is glad for the break. The man got up there and after threshing for a few minutes, dove into the machine and killed himself. No one ever knew who he was or where he had come from. Antonia can’t imagine why someone would kill himself during threshing time when everything is so good. Nina gets upset and Mrs. Harling scolds her telling her she will be sent out of the room when Antonia tells her stories if she doesn’t calm down. Mrs. Harling says she is homesick for the country and wants to go with Antonia and do some threshing next season. Jim realizes how similar Antonia and Mrs. Harling are. They both relish life.
After the Burdens move to town, Cather has less opportunity for indulging in description of nature. The seasonal rhythm of the novel is almost lost. Then comes winter. Even in town, winter is felt intensely in Nebraska. The narrator describes what winter does to the small town in metaphorical terms as truth descending on all of them, making them see what reality indeed is, punishing them for enjoying the summer with such relish. The landscape is also colorless in winter. The people in town linger outside the church just to see the colored glass of its windows.
Jim Burden seems to adopt the Harlings as his own family, at least all but Mr. Harling. In the non-patriarchal household of Mrs. Harling in Mr. Harling’s absence, every Saturday night is a party and all the children get loving attention from Mrs. Harling and Antonia. Antonia seems to thrive in the Harlings’ house away from her mother and brother. In this chapter, we find out something new about Antonia: she’s a great storyteller. The narrator describes the inflections in her voice and the rapt attention of her listeners: "Everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart."
Antonia’s story of the threshing machine suicide brings the country back into the novel. The scene of threshing is vividly described. The bizarre chance of a man coming onto the job and committing suicide in a threshing machine is greeted by Antonia with bewilderment. It’s not that he kills himself, but that he kills himself in threshing time when everything is good. Her story makes Mrs. Harling homesick for the country.