It is now Christmas 1962. Dad has found odd jobs, but the work is irregular. So Christmas will be tough for the Land family. What Reuben really wants is the Spartacus model, while Swede wants something even more extravagant - a trip out west on a horse in search of Davy.
Ten days before Christmas, Dr. Nokes drops by and becomes alarmed at Dad’s deepening cough and asks how long it has been going on. Dad sends Reuben and Swede to their rooms while he talks to the doctor and Reuben notes that there seems to be a strange smell in the air, a heavy staleness. He wonders why he hasn’t noticed his Dad’s illness before.
Dr. Nokes later tells Reuben that he was more worried at that time about Reuben than his father. He knew antibiotics and his own strong constitution would save Dad, but he didn’t think Reuben’s lungs could take an infection. So at the time, he tells Reuben he must stay out of his father’s room and Swede will nurse him. He also tells Reuben that Mr. Layton needs someone to tear down his corncrib (a structure used to store corn to dry it). Reuben is pleased that the doctor has so much confidence in his strong back.
So Reuben goes to work on the corncrib. At first, he can’t get the nails to pry out and he comes in for lunch, frozen and wet. They sit down and eat villing, a Swedish food meant to help you when you’re sick. Reuben doesn’t care, because it tastes so good. Then, Swede tells Reuben that Dad is worse. Reuben goes into his father even though he’s been told not to. Jeremiah asks him if this is the way his lungs feel all the time. When Reuben says yes, Jeremiah asks him if he’d like to move to a place like New Mexico where the air is drier, but Reuben worries about Davy finding them if they move. He’d love to do it, nonetheless, because it’s the West! Then he realized that he had gone into his Dad and had never once thought about him being ill, while his Dad thought only of how the West would help Reuben’s lungs. Swede agrees with him that they’ll wait for Dad to heal and then talk about making such a step.
Back at the corncrib, Reuben has been able to only bring down six lengths of lath (a narrow board used in building the walls). Then he is interrupted by a neighbor boy, who is only six years old, named Raymond. Raymond has a terrible cold and asks questions that Reuben would rather not answer. About that time, Reuben discovers a principle of physics - Mr. Layton’s crowbar had been broken at the top and so he had no fulcrum. Once he figured how to use it, the lath began to come off quickly.
The corncrib represented the hardest work Reuben had ever done, but he thinks Swede has it much tougher at home, especially listening to his Dad hack and cough. At one point, Reuben watches him sleep and fears he is going to stop breathing. So he awakens him and his Dad asks him to pound his back to help loosen the pneumonia in his lungs. When he sags back against his pillow, he is breathing much easier and tells Reuben that the corncrib is really helping him become stronger.
Reuben finishes the corncrib on December 20th. He walks away from the pile of wood he has neatly stacked and feels like he’s breathing buckets of air. Meanwhile, Swede is chafed beyond reason, because they have received many more Christmas cards than they ever have before, but not one of them is from Davy. Later, Mr. Layton comes over and pays Reuben for tearing down the corncrib. He gives him $25 plus two chocolate bars for him and Swede. He tells him as well what a good job he had done. For two whole days, he and Swede dream about what they can do with $25.
On the morning of December 23rd, Dad gets out of bed. Reuben can hear him shaving and goes to the bathroom to say good morning. Dad’s voice is quiet and he appears tried, but his lungs are free of the congestion that had such a hold on him. Reuben, however, is shocked by how thin he is. All the extra muscle he once had is gone. His father sees his face and says, “I’m a little surprise myself you know.”
Then, Reuben finally realizes what he should be spending his $25.00 for - food. What makes him choose to do that is Swede’s comment about an incident in Little Women when Jo cut off her hair for Marmee’s train fare. “ ‘If Marmee begged Jo to cut off her hair and sell it,’ Swede hypothesized, ‘I wonder how heroic a thing it would have been.’ He didn’t say anything. But he thought: Aw, crumb.” (page 123)
He and Swede buy plenty of groceries, especially coffee and cooked Dad food to help him gain back his strength. “It has been a defining trait of their family: the moment some simple but meaningful treat is prepared, a good fish soup or the first pot of coffee in weeks, up trots some uninvited person with an appetite.” (page 124) A man by the name of Andreeson, a federal investigator, expects to nab Davy before the turn of the New Year. He is smug and clearly an enemy. He tells Dad that Davy will make contact with them and that they should do the right thing - get in touch with Mr. Andreeson. The Feds have taken the case, because they believe that Davy has crossed state lines. Dad tells him, “Mr. Andreeson, you and I will not speak again.”
That night, Swede tells Reuben the story of how Cole Younger was brought in after the back raid in Northfield. The first night Younger was in jail, the sheriff, Paxton, went to his cells and gave him pen and ink. He told him that if he named which one of his gang murdered the bank teller, he would personally solicit for his freedom. Anyone else would have jumped at the chance for freedom. Younger just wrote on the paper, “Be true to your friends - though the heavens fall.” This seems a metaphor for how they will join forces as a family to protect Davy.
The good thing about reduced circumstances, according to Reuben, going into Christmas, is that their expectations changed. He doesn’t think about the Spartacus model or the canoe after he walked in on his father and saw what the illness had done to him. Swede, however, is determined to at least prepare more Christmas dinner than they can ever eat. When she lights the candles, puts the last dishes on the table, and calls them to the table, two things happen: Dad laughs aloud for pure delight and someone climbs on the porch and knocks. It is Mr. DeCuellar and his wife telling everyone Merry Christmas and bearing gifts. The last gift is a key to the 1963 Airstream (a travel trailer) which poor Mr. Lurvy had willed to Dad after he died alone on the road. Dad just keeps laughing and laughing and when Reuben asks him why, he says, “Because I was praying this morning; and I prayed ‘Lord, send Davy home to us; or if not, Lord, do this: Send us Davy.’ “ (page 128) (This is also a motif - miracles)
Much of this chapter speaks to the idea of sacrifice. Dad is very ill, but he’s more concerned for Reuben. When he realizes they need groceries, Reuben gives up his $25. Swede cooks up a Christmas dinner that anyone would be amazed at, given that she’s only eight years old. Finally, even though he was alone and sick, Mr. Lurvy never forgot the kindnesses the Land family showed him and rewarded them with the Airstream. This is also a miracle for it comes after Dad’s prayer asking for a way to find Davy.
Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on Peace Like a River".
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