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Free Study Guide: The Cider House Rules by John Irving

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CHAPTER 7 - Before the War

Summary

Melony moves from orchard to orchard along the Maine coast determined to find Homer. She stopped at one apple mart, but no one had heard of Ocean View. The foreman offered her a job when the picking started in 3 weeks, but she declined and left. Down the road, she walked passed two men who got in their truck and followed her. She ran, and they chased her on foot. The slower man was farther behind, but the other one was catching up. Suddenly she stopped to face him, and before he could stop, she flung herself at him, knocking them both to the ground. She crushed his throat; jumped as high as she could landing in the small of his back; and knocked him unconscious. Before the other man could catch up, she’d taken a large buckled leather belt off the unconscious man and whipped the slower man with it until he curled up into a ball. She left in their truck, while they lay beaten and scared.

Melony drove the truck back to the apple mart and told the foreman that two of his hands had tried to rape her and he could either call the police or fire them and give her their jobs. The foreman gave her the job and set her up in the cider house. The slower fat man needed 41 stitches and suffered a broken nose. The other man only needed 4 stitches, but he had 2 cracked ribs and a concussion. He suffered repeated muscle spasms. The foreman told him that he had given Melony a job, and they’d better leave her alone.

Homer and the other workers were again cleaning and painting the cider house in preparation for the migrant workers. It was in much better condition than the one Melony was staying in and several hundred miles away. While painting, Homer came across the cider house rules. The rules were for the migrant workers. The rules mostly discussed not doing things, such as operating the grinder or sitting on the cider house roof, while drinking. The other workers told Homer that no one paid any attention to the rules.


The workers, except Grace Lynch, went to lunch, and Homer went up on the roof. Soaking wet from the rain, he climbed down. Grace, who had been cleaning the 1,000 gallon vat, asked for help. She said she couldn’t get out. She was lying. When Homer came over, she grabbed his hand and tried to pull him in. She was naked. It wasn’t her nakedness that struck Homer, but the extreme definition of her bones (she looked like a starved animal) and the bruises on her body. She was beat regularly and hard. Suddenly, Wally came by and honked his horn. Grace scrambled to get dressed. Homer left with Wally, whose father was in trouble.

Homer and Wally retrieved Senior from the general store. The plumber, whose store was next door to the general store, told Wally that it was not alcohol this time. After putting Senior to bed, Homer tells Olive and Wally that he thought Senior had a neurological problem. He described Senior’s symptoms to Larch in a letter. Olive believed their family doctor, a man even older than Larch, that it was alcohol related. Larch wrote Homer back a very detailed letter stating that Senior had Alzheimer’s disease, which he showed to Olive. They took Senior to a neurologist who confirmed Larch’s diagnosis. Senior was euphoric that he had a disease and he wasn’t simply a drunk, and Olive was enormously relieved and thankful. She hugged, kissed, and thanked Homer energetically. This news made Senior’s death at the end of the summer easier to bear. There was a sense of relief rather than grief.

Also at the end of the summer, Olive offered Homer a home. She asked him to stay when Wally went back to college and offered to help with his education. Olive and Larch must have had quite a correspondence. Olive mentioned taking science courses and Latin. Homer, realizing Larch’s doing in this, said he didn’t want to be a doctor, and Olive replied that Larch wanted him to have the option of becoming a doctor if Homer changed his mind. Homer, in a letter to Larch, asked permission to stay and avoid taking Latin. Larch told him it was okay not to take Latin or Greek.

Larch was also busy meeting the board’s request for follow-ups on the adopted children. The board told him that if it was too much work they could provide him with an assistant. Larch documented the history of many of the orphans without having to invent anything. However, he made sure to work on finishing his fictitious history of Fuzzy Stone. He traveled to Bowdoin’s and Harvard Medical School on the pretext of wanting to look through transcripts for a suitable student, who, in the case of Bowdoin, would dedicate his life to serve St. Cloud’s and, in the case of Harvard, would earn a training fellowship in obstetrics at St. Cloud’s. While visiting, he created transcripts for the fictitious F. Stone and placed them amongst the others. He then returned to St. Cloud’s, requested these transcripts, and set up a post office box for F. Stone. He then completed F. Stone’s fictitious story of adoption. He also wrote of Homer’s heart problem—a murmur that though present when Homer was a child was now barely detectable.

Homer and Wally spent Wally’s last night before going to college at the carnival grounds. Wally was talking about flying planes in the war in Europe. Homer didn’t follow the war. The war was for people with families to worry about. Homer was thinking about his resolve to keep his mind off Candy, who would be finishing her senior year at the academy. She would be home most weekends. Wally asked Homer to look after her. Then Homer dropped Wally off at Candy’s home, while her father was helping to spray the orchards. Homer picked up Debra for their date at the drive-in. Homer was still learning the rules of dating. He asked Debra how come Wally and Candy “do it,” and they don’t. Debra explained that you needed to be in love because if a pregnancy occurred, you could get married. Homer wondered if everything was about getting pregnant and not wanting to have a baby.

Homer dropped Debra off and had tea with Ray as Wally and Candy continued to say goodbye. Ray said that Homer was a learner just like he was. He had taught Homer a number of mechanical jobs, such as oil changes and performing an alignment, and Homer remembered all of it, much to Ray’s astonishment. Ray, a widower, respected loneliness, and an orphan had a fair share of that.

Homer asked how Candy came to be pregnant. Wally told him the rubber he used had a hole in it. He didn’t use rubbers from Herb any more. After Wally went to sleep, Homer took out a rubber he had in his pocket and filled it with water. Sure enough there was a hole, purposely placed dead center. He thought about the first fetus he’d seen and the arms of the murdered fetus he autopsied. He looked out Wally’s window, but all he could see was St. Cloud’s. To calm himself, to force himself to believe, Homer repeated these words from David Copperfield: “I have stood aside to see the phantoms of those days go by me. They are going, and I resume the journey of my story.” That night, he could not sleep.

The next day Wally went to college, Candy to the academy, and Homer to high school. The textbook for his biology class, Practical Anatomy of the Rabbit, filled him with longing. He missed Gray’s Anatomy. He looked forward to the class.

Larch and the nurses buried Clara, Homer’s last cadaver. Larch wept. Perhaps he thought Homer would never come back, but Nurse Angela was sure he would. As suspected, the board was checking up on Dr. Larch and the orphans. Larch received Fuzzy Stone’s questionnaire from the board. The questionnaire, only 5 questions long, wanted to know if the orphans felt they had been properly supervised, received adequate medical attention, had been prepared for their new life, whether orphanage life had been integrated into the community, and if there needed to be improvements, such as a younger staff. He realized that the board was making the incorrect assumptions that the adoptees had been 5 or 6 years old before being adopted. Larch wondered sarcastically what community they were talking about. There was no community in St. Cloud’s.

Larch crafted Fuzzy’s reply and exaggerated everything. He was tired when he finished. He realized he’d have to wait until Fuzzy Stone, that is, Homer Wells, finished medical school and was able to replace him. Homer was anxious when he read the questionnaire. The thought of what might happen when Larch was too old troubled him so much that he tucked the questionnaire away in his anatomy book.

Homer met the picking crew and their crew boss, Arthur Rose. He looked Wally’s age but must have been older for he’d been the crew boss for 5 or 6 years. Mister Rose, as he was called, was doing a good job. He dressed no better than the rest of the crew, but he had a style with shabbiness. He was clean shaven and his face was a “smooth brick of the darkest, unsweetened, bitter chocolate.” He spoke and moved slowly but deliberately in both speech and gesture, but if you observed him standing still and not speaking, he looked extraordinarily fast and sure of himself. There were 17 pickers and a cook this year, all men. Mr. Rose invited Homer back to watch them make cider.

The picking crew that arrived at Melony’s farm included two women and a child, so Melony felt safe staying in the cider house. By her third day in the field, Melony was managing 80 bushels. None of the crew had heard of Ocean View. Homer watched a day press of cider. It was boring, but Homer agreed to come back for a night press to “get the feel of it” as Mr. Rose said. He approached the cider house unobserved after dinner and listened. He couldn’t understand a word they were saying. The men were not making any effort to be understood by a white person.

Melony was not interested in the night pressing at her farm. She read Jane Eyre silently. The other pickers were nice to her and respected her work. She lied to one of the workers and told him the barrette she’d stolen from Mary Agnes (which Mary Agnes had stolen from Candy) was used for one thing: cutting off the tip of a penis. The story held, and along with the other things they knew about Melony, no one messed with her. The one thing they didn’t like about Melony was her reading at night. It took her a while to realize how unfriendly and insulting they felt her reading was. They told her it must be nice to be able to read and that they might like to be read to. So she did. The all turned their eyes toward her waiting. For the first time she was afraid. Someone was expecting something from her. As she began to read, they stopped and asked her what the words embowered, solitary, and unvaried meant. They had never heard these words before. Melony began to sob. They were respectful of it. She stopped reading and turned out the light. Sandra, another picker, sat on Melony’s bed and stroked her temples and told her to forget her boyfriend. Melony realized how much she missed Mrs. Grogan and that took her mind off Homer temporarily.

After everyone fell asleep, she turned on the light and read another 20 pages, but she couldn’t get her mind off Homer. She came to the line “ I must part with you for my whole life. I must begin a new existence amongst strange faces and strange scenes.” The truth of this line closed the book for her forever. She slid the book under her bed where she would leave it forever. She cried herself to sleep.

Homer joined Mr. Rose and watched “the orchestra of the pump and grinder.” One of the men lost his cigarette in the 1,000 gallon vat. Mr. Rose told him to strip, take a shower, and jump in and get it out. The man refused. Mr. Rose then told Homer he should see the view from the roof. As he was being led out, he heard one of the men tell the defiant man that Mr. Rose was in the knife business, and he didn’t want to be in the knife business with Mr. Rose. He better stay in the apple business. Homer heard the shower turn on.

The men on the roof were watching the Ferris wheel, off in the distance, stop and start in awe. Homer tried to explain what the Ferris wheel was, but Mr. Rose nudged him to stop and told the men Homer was a good storyteller. He later told Homer it wouldn’t do any good for the men to know what the Ferris wheel does.

The next day, Mr. Rose told Homer he wanted to see the Ferris wheel, but no one must know about it. Mr. Rose was nervous about the looks he was getting. Homer had always thought that he was looked at differently because he was an orphan. The looks he got were only imagined in comparison to those that black Mr. Rose received. They sat together on the Ferris wheel. A crowd gathered at the bottom of the wheel to watch Mr. Rose and Homer. Mr. Rose said they wanted to see a “nigger” fly or to see if he’d break the wheel. Then, Mr. Rose leaned far over and vomited into the crowd. Not everyone got out of the way in time. When the ride stopped, a young man covered in vomit said to Mr. Rose that he looked like he meant to do that. Mr. Rose replied, “Who means to get sick?” and walked away. The boy again said challengingly, “I think you meant to.” After a brief exchange, Mr. Rose was chest-to-chest with the young boy. Mr. Rose told him he was in the throwin’-up business. He said it in a way that everyone watching laughed. He apologized to the boy, and they parted peacefully. Mr. Rose hurried Homer away, but not before Homer turned around to see the shocked look on the boy’s face and that the boy’s flannel jacket, which had been zipped, was wide open. There was a single slash from the collar to the waist, and every button of the boy’s shirt was gone.

When Homer asked how he did it, Mr. Rose told him that your hands have to be fast, and you do it with your eyes. You keep your eyes off your hand. Mr. Rose asked Homer if he was right: that knowing about the Ferris wheel wouldn’t be any good for the pickers. Homer agreed. He thought it wouldn’t do any good for Melony, Curly Day, or even Fuzzy to know about it either.

Notes

Both Homer and Melony are struggling to leave St. Cloud’s behind and adjust to their new lives. Both cannot help but remember where they have come from. Homer remembers Dickens: “I have stood aside to see the phantoms of those days go by me. They are going, and I resume the journey of my story.” And Melony is touched by Bronte: “I must part with you for my whole life. I must begin a new existence amongst strange faces and strange scenes.” Both of these quotes speak of moving forward and breaking from the past. For Homer, this means breaking from Larch and Larch’s work. For Melony, this means forgetting about Homer and the promise he broke. This transition period is unsettling and even painful for both Homer and Melony.

The other issue this chapter touches on is that of race. At this time in the 1940s, there was a great division between the races. The trip to the Ferris wheel draws attention to this division. Homer and Mr. Rose are stared at, and Homer realizes that the stares he felt he received as an orphan paled in comparison to those Mr. Rose received. Homer also learns that it would not do any good for the other pickers to know about the Ferris wheel as they would not have the opportunity to experience it because of the color of their skin. Homer can relate. The orphans at St. Cloud’s would not have been able to experience it either.

Also, we see in this chapter again that Larch lives by his own rules. His rules allow him to create an elaborate fictitious history for a nonexistent replacement in the hope that Homer will choose to return to St. Cloud’s. Larch does this to protect the women whom he serves. It also helps him cope with Homer’s absence.

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