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Free Study Guide/Summary for A Day No Pigs Would Die

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Robert is wakened by rain and thunder in the middle of the night. When he hears voices downstairs, he goes to the top of the steps to investigate. Mrs. Hillman, a neighbor from up the road, is at the door with a lantern. Mrs. Peck and Aunt Carrie invite her in. She is upset because her husband, Sebring, has gone out in the middle of the night in the pouring rain with a spade in hand. She explains where she thinks he has gone. Papa comes in from the barn and calls to Robert, telling him to get dressed and to yoke and hook the ox to the wagon. Without a question or complaint, Robert throws on his clothes, moving so fast his pants are put on backwards; he runs to the barn to hitch Solomon as instructed. It is a struggle to get the ox in the yoke, for it is the first time he has ever done this task alone. Mr. Peck comes out with a lantern and the shotgun and tells the boy to get in the wagon. Robert learns that they are going to the cemetery, because Papa wants to stop Sebring Hillman from digging up a grave. On the way, father and son have to push the wagon out of the mud two different times.

When the boy and his Pa arrive at the Meeting House with its graveyard, they can hear the lonely sound of a shovel hitting wood. Going into the cemetery, Robert and Mr. Peck spy Sebring hard at work in a grave. Mr. Peck tells Sebring he has come to take him home. Sebring answers, “Not ‘til this work is done. And the sin and trouble is ended for all to see and know.” Mr. Peck says he cannot allow the grave of one of his kin to be dug up; therefore, he tells Sebring to drop his shovel, while he puts his gun in clear view. Climbing out of the hole he has dug, Sebring says he does not intend to disturb the box of Letty Phelps, a dead relative of Mr. Peck. Instead, he is searching for a smaller coffin, the one belonging to Letty’s child. With Mr. Peck’s help, he finds it, takes it from the grave, holds it close to his chest, and tells his story. He had an affair with Letty Phelps, and she conceived a child, a daughter that Sebring never claimed or acknowledged as his own. Letty, in her frustration, drowns the illegitimate child and hangs herself. Sebring has been haunted by their deaths and ashamed of his sin; he now wants to claim the dead child as his own.

Sebring carries the little coffin through the rain to his wagon, which has no cover. Mr. Peck tells his neighbor to tie his team and wagon behind his; then Hillman can ride home with them under cover. On the way back home, Sebring says he is sorry about Letty’s death and his digging up her grave. Mr. Peck simply answers, “It’s over and done.” He then tells Sebring that his wife, May, is at their farm. Sebring comments that she is a good woman. He also says he feels better than he has felt in a long time, because he is no longer going to hide his sin and guilt; instead, he plans to bury his illegitimate daughter “in Hillman land. With a Hillman name.”

It is nearly sunrise when Sebring, Pa, and Robert arrive at home. Robert goes in the back door, responsibly taking off his boots before entering because of the mud. When Ma spies him, she strips him to the skin and rubs him dry with a flour sack. Then she wraps the boy in a warming blanket, straight out of the oven. As she gives him a spoonful of hot honey, she tells him he looks “like a potato dug up on a rainy day.” Before he goes upstairs to sleep, Robert notices Sebring leaving with his wife.


This chapter emphasizes the themes of the novel more than developing the action or the characters. Mr. Peck calls to Robert in the middle of a stormy night and tells him to get dressed and hitch the ox to the wagon. Obedient as always, Robert immediately follows his father’s directions without a single question or complaint. He goes to the barn and yokes Solomon, a very difficult task that he has never before accomplished by himself. It is obvious that the boy is growing stronger and more responsible. When Mr. Peck enters the barn, he instructs his son to get in the wagon, and they set off. Robert learns that they are headed to the cemetery by the Meeting House, for his father suspects that Sebring Hillman is trying to dig up the grave of one of his relatives. This is a sacrilege to the stern Shaker man, and he aims to stop Sebring; he even brings his gun to make certain there is no trouble.

Arriving at the graveyard, Mr. Peck and Robert find Sebring digging in Letty Phelps’ grave, as expected. It must have been a shocking experience for the youthful Robert, but he makes no comment and shows little fear, only wrapping himself more tightly in the buffalo robe. He listens as his father demands that Sebring come out of the hole he has dug in the grave, holding his gun in plain view to make his point. Sebring emerges and promises he has no intention of disturbing Letty’s coffin; instead, he is looking for the coffin of her young child. Sebring then explains that he has fathered this illegitimate daughter and has been too ashamed to claim her. His shame and guilt have made him miserable. In an effort to own up to his sin, he wants to take the small coffin home and bury it on his land, under the Hillman name. After hearing the explanation, Mr. Peck offers his help.

The graveyard scene is a real learning experience for Robert. From the time his father calls him to hook Solomon to the wagon until he returns home, he is treated in an adult-like fashion. He is taken to the cemetery in the middle of the night and allowed to see Sebring digging up a grave and his father confronting him, gun in hand. He is also allowed to listen to Sebring’s explanation of how he fathered Letty’s illegitimate child, now buried beside her mother; he also hears how Sebring now wants to own up to his sin in a mature, responsible manner. The night is certainly a lesson in reality for the young Robert; it is also a compliment to him, for his father shows that he trusts his son, almost like a man.

Robert is brought back to another reality when he returns home. His doting and concerned mother is horrified that he is muddy and wet to the core. She has him strip to the bareskin and then dries him thoroughly with a flour sack and wraps him in a warm blanket, treating him almost as a young child. Robert, however, knows better than to question one of his parents and does not give a word of complaint.

Through this pivotal chapter, which at first seems a bit awkward in the framework of the novel, the author is preparing Robert and the reader for the later events in the book. The first half of the novel centers on new life and growth. Robert saves the lives of Apron and her calf and receives a piglet as a reward. With interest and care, he watches Pinky grow and mature, much like he himself is growing and maturing. This chapter then introduces death for the first time; it sets the mood and foreshadows the later deaths of Pinky and Mr. Peck.


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