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A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE - FREE STUDY GUIDE / SUMMARY
Mr. Peck lives through the winter, but dies in the barn on the third day of May. When Robert goes out to do his chores in the morning, he finds him lying on the straw bed that he had rigged for himself. When his pa does not move, Robert knows he is probably dead, but he talks to him as if he were just resting: “You can sleep this morning . . . I’ll do the chores . . . You just rest.” Robert feeds the animals, milks he cow, and collects the eggs. He then goes into the house and tells his mother and Aunt Carrie that Papa will not be coming up for breakfast, “not this morning, and not ever again.” He then puts an arm around each of them and holds them close.
Robert immediately takes charge, just like his father has wanted him to do. He asks if Mr. Peck has any good clothes for the funeral. Mrs. Peck says there are some in the chest at the foot of the bed. Robert then says he is going into town to see Mr. Wilcox, the Shaker undertaker. Before he goes out to yoke Solomon for the trip into town, he gives his mother and aunt a kiss.
After visiting with Mr. Wilcox, Robert stops to give the news about his father to Aunt Matty and Hume, to Mrs. Bascom and Ira, and to Mr. and Mrs. Tanner. By the time he returns home, Mr. Wilcox has already arrived with a plain wood coffin in his rig; the coffin is a gift from the Circle of Shakers. Robert will have to find a way to pay Mr. Wilcox for his services.
The funeral is set for noon, and Mr. Wilcox tells Robert that everything will be ready. Robert tells his mother that there will not be many people attending, probably only six. She thanks the boy for his efforts and says she could not have done it all by herself. Robert reassures her that she would have, saying that “when you’re the only one to do something, it always gets done.” He then goes out to dig a grave in the family plot.
When the grave is finished, Robert goes into the tackroom to find something to do in order to keep his mind occupied. He notices that where the handles of Mr. Peck’s tools are worn by his labor, the wood is lighter in color, almost golden. Robert thinks the wood is beautiful, “gilded by work.” Robert holds and handles each tool, remembering his father at work. He then notices an old, dusty cigar box and opens it. Inside he finds a worn down pencil and a scrap of old paper on which Mr. Peck had practiced writing his name. One of the signatures is almost correct. After carefully refolding the paper and putting it back in the box, Robert goes inside to change clothes. Since he has no fancy clothes, he takes a pair of pa’s old black trousers and pins them up so they will not be too long. He puts them on along with a shirt that also belongs to his father. When he looks in the mirror, he thinks he looks more like a clown than a mourner. He rips off the shirt and says, "Hear me, God. It’s hell to be poor.”
At noon, the friends and neighbors start to arrive. First to come are Matty and Hume, followed by the widow Bascom and her new husband, Ira Long. When the Tanners arrive, Robert goes out to meet them and says, “Thank you for coming, Mr. Tanner.” He insists that the boy now call him Ben, like everyone else does. He explains that “two men who are good friends ought to front name one another.” His wife joins in that her name is Bess.
Assuming that all the guests have arrived, Robert starts to go in the house. He then notices more activity on the road and is delighted to see that several others are coming, including Jacob Henry and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hillman, Isadore Crookshank, and Clay Sander, who was Mr. Peck’s boss, with several of the other workers. Robert realizes that there will be no work at the slaughterhouse on this day; it would be “a day no pigs would die.” Robert is glad that so many have come to help “plant Have Peck into the earth . . . They’d come because they respected him and honored him.” The boy feels happy for and proud of his pa. Although he was not a rich man, “by damn he wasn’t poor . . . He had a lot.”
Inside the coffin is lying open on the long table in the kitchen, away from the friends gathered in the parlor. As the eldest son, Robert knows he needs to address the friends, saying some words about his father. Fortunately, Mr. Wilcox has coached him some, and he manages to say the following eulogy:
Haven Peck. Devoted husband and father, a working farmer and good neighbor.
After these words, family, friends, and neighbors file through the kitchen to look at Mr. Peck one last time. The lid is then closed and nailed down. Six of the men lift the coffin, carry it out to the family plot, and lower it into the hole that Robert has dug. The men then begin to shovel the soil into the hole until it is filled. There was no marker for the grave - “nothing to say who it was or what he had done in his sixty years.”
Robert walks away from the grave between Mrs. Peck and Aunt Carrie. He notices that his mother’s face is sweet, plain, and empty. He knows how much she is going to miss her husband. Mr. Tanner comes up and tells Robert that if either he or his wife can help in any way, all he has to do is ask. The boy tells Tanner that he is a good neighbor, much like his father would have said it.
Back in the house, Aunt Carrie
and Mrs. Peck busied themselves to keep from weeping. Robert changes into his
work clothes, heads out to the barn, and begins his chores. At dinner, little
is said or eaten; it was too hard to swallow the beans and pork that they had
been eating since the autumn. After supper, Robert sends his mother and aunt to
bed, for he sees how tired they both look. Knowing he cannot sleep, Robert puts
on his coat and goes to the barn to check on the animals. He then walks out to
the orchard to say a goodnight to his pa and be alone with him for awhile. He
thinks about Haven Peck, “buried deep in the land he sweated so hard on and longed
to own so much. And now it owned him.” Robert tells him that they had thirteen
good years together. It is all he can manage to say.
The chapter gives the conclusion to the plot. One morning, Robert finds his father dead in his straw bed in the barn. Fully aware that the end had been coming, Robert immediately takes charge, proving himself a capable young man of thirteen. First he goes inside and gently tells his mother and aunt that Pa will not be coming in for breakfast ever again. He then yokes the ox and goes into town to tell Mr. Wilcox, the Shaker undertaker, the news. On the way back home he informs six people of his father’s death - Aunt Matty and her husband, Mrs. Bascom and Ira, and the Tanners. Back at home, he makes the final funeral arrangements with Mr. Wilcox, who has already arrived at the Peck farm. Next he goes out to the family plot in the orchard and digs a grave for his father. When this work is done, he busies himself in the tackroom in order to pass the time before pa’s burial.
As noon approaches, Robert goes inside to ready himself for the funeral. Since he has no good clothes of his own, he tries on some of those belonging to his father; however, he feels like a clown in them and takes them off. The pain of his poverty is suddenly very clear to him, and he tells the good Lord that it is hell to be poor. It is almost as if he is promising himself to work hard and rise above the poverty. After he is dressed, he goes down to greet the six friends whom he is expecting. He is surprised and pleased to see that many more people come to the funeral, including his own friend Jacob Henry and his father’s boss and several of his co-workers.
Gathered with the friends in the parlor, Robert knows he must say something about his father. The eulogy is short and sweet, an appropriate message from a thirteen-year-old son, proving he has reached him maturity. Everyone then files through the kitchen for one last look at Haven Peck. The coffin is then closed and carried to the grave, where it is lowered by several men. Once the coffin is in place, the men put the soil back into the hole that Robert has dug.
Although greatly upset, Robert
proves throughout the day that he has truly matured. He carefully handles all
the arrangements for the burial, digs the grave, and gives the eulogy at the simple
funeral. At the gravesite, he holds his emotions in check, much like his father,
and never sheds a tear. Instead, he supports Mrs. Peck and Aunt Carrie and even
insists that they go to bed early since they are both tired and strained. He goes
about doing the needed chores, both his own and those of his father. When all
is quiet on the farm, he goes out to say his final farewell to his pa. It is a
simple, but tender, parting. Haven Peck would be very proud that his only living
son is handling everything like a man.
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