Main Street By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 5-7

Chapter VII

I

GOPHER PRAIRIE was digging in for the winter. Through late November and all December it snowed daily; the thermometer was at zero and might drop to twenty below, or thirty. Winter is not a season in the North Middlewest; it is an industry. Storm sheds were erected at every door. In every block the householders, Sam Clark, the wealthy Mr. Dawson, all save asthmatic Ezra Stowbody who extravagantly hired a boy, were seen perilously staggering up ladders, carrying storm windows and screwing them to second-story jambs. While Kennicott put up his windows Carol danced inside the bedrooms and begged him not to swallow the screws, which he held in his mouth like an extraordinary set of external false teeth.

The universal sign of winter was the town handyman — Miles Bjornstam, a tall, thick, red-mustached bachelor, opinionated atheist, general-store arguer, cynical Santa Claus. Children loved him, and he sneaked away from work to tell them improbable stories of sea-faring and horse-trading and bears. The children's parents either laughed at him or hated him. He was the one democrat in town. He called both Lyman Cass the miller and the Finn homesteader from Lost Lake by their first names. He was known as "The Red Swede," and considered slightly insane.

Bjornstam could do anything with his hands — solder a pan, weld an automobile spring, soothe a frightened filly, tinker a clock, carve a Gloucester schooner which magically went into a bottle. Now, for a week, he was commissioner general of Gopher Prairie. He was the only person besides the repairman at Sam Clark's who understood plumbing. Everybody begged him to look over the furnace and the water-pipes. He rushed from house to house till after bedtime — ten o'clock. Icicles from burst water-pipes hung along the skirt of his brown dog-skin overcoat; his plush cap, which he never took off in the house, was a pulp of ice and coal-dust; his red hands were cracked to rawness; he chewed the stub of a cigar.

But he was courtly to Carol. He stooped to examine the furnace flues; he straightened, glanced down at her, and hemmed, "Got to fix your furnace, no matter what else I do."

The poorer houses of Gopher Prairie, where the services of Miles Bjornstam were a luxury — which included the shanty of Miles Bjornstam — were banked to the lower windows with earth and manure. Along the railroad the sections of snow fence, which had been stacked all summer in romantic wooden tents occupied by roving small boys, were set up to prevent drifts from covering the track.

The farmers came into town in home-made sleighs, with bed-quilts and hay piled in the rough boxes.

Fur coats, fur caps, fur mittens, overshoes buckling almost to the knees, gray knitted scarfs ten feet long, thick woolen socks, canvas jackets lined with fluffy yellow wool like the plumage of ducklings, moccasins, red flannel wristlets for the blazing chapped wrists of boys — these protections against winter were busily dug out of moth-ball-sprinkled drawers and tar-bags in closets, and all over town small boys were squealing, "Oh, there's my mittens!" or "Look at my shoe-packs!" There is so sharp a division between the panting summer and the stinging winter of the Northern plains that they rediscovered with surprise and a feeling of heroism this armor of an Artic explorer.

Winter garments surpassed even personal gossip as the topic at parties. It was good form to ask, "Put on your heavies yet?" There were as many distinctions in wraps as in motor cars. The lesser sort appeared in yellow and black dogskin coats, but Kennicott was lordly in a long raccoon ulster and a new seal cap. When the snow was too deep for his motor he went off on country calls in a shiny, floral, steel-tipped cutter, only his ruddy nose and his cigar emerging from the fur.

Carol herself stirred Main Street by a loose coat of nutria. Her finger-tips loved the silken fur.

Her liveliest activity now was organizing outdoor sports in the motor-paralyzed town.

The automobile and bridge-whist had not only made more evident the social divisions in Gopher Prairie but they had also enfeebled the love of activity. It was so rich-looking to sit and drive — and so easy. Skiing and sliding were "stupid" and "old-fashioned." In fact, the village longed for the elegance of city recreations almost as much as the cities longed for village sports; and Gopher Prairie took as much pride in neglecting coasting as St. Paul — or New York — in going coasting. Carol did inspire a successful skating-party in mid-November. Plover Lake glistened in clear sweeps of gray-green ice, ringing to the skates. On shore the ice-tipped reeds clattered in the wind, and oak twigs with stubborn last leaves hung against a milky sky. Harry Haydock did figure-eights, and Carol was certain that she had found the perfect life. But when snow had ended the skating and she tried to get up a moonlight sliding party, the matrons hesitated to stir away from their radiators and their daily bridge-whist imitations of the city. She had to nag them. They scooted down a long hill on a bob-sled, they upset and got snow down their necks they shrieked that they would do it again immediately — and they did not do it again at all.

She badgered another group into going skiing. They shouted and threw snowballs, and informed her that it was SUCH fun, and they'd have another skiing expedition right away, and they jollily returned home and never thereafter left their manuals of bridge.

Carol was discouraged. She was grateful when Kennicott invited her to go rabbit-hunting in the woods. She waded down stilly cloisters between burnt stump and icy oak, through drifts marked with a million hieroglyphics of rabbit and mouse and bird. She squealed as he leaped on a pile of brush and fired at the rabbit which ran out. He belonged there, masculine in reefer and sweater and high-laced boots. That night she ate prodigiously of steak and fried potatoes; she produced electric sparks by touching his ear with her finger-tip; she slept twelve hours; and awoke to think how glorious was this brave land.

She rose to a radiance of sun on snow. Snug in her furs she trotted up-town. Frosted shingles smoked against a sky colored like flax-blossoms, sleigh-bells clinked, shouts of greeting were loud in the thin bright air, and everywhere was a rhythmic sound of wood-sawing. It was Saturday, and the neighbors' sons were getting up the winter fuel. Behind walls of corded wood in back yards their sawbucks stood in depressions scattered with canary-yellow flakes of sawdust. The frames of their buck-saws were cherry-red, the blades blued steel, and the fresh cut ends of the sticks — poplar, maple, iron-wood, birch — were marked with engraved rings of growth. The boys wore shoe-packs, blue flannel shirts with enormous pearl buttons, and mackinaws of crimson, lemon yellow, and foxy brown.

Carol cried "Fine day!" to the boys; she came in a glow to Howland & Gould's grocery, her collar white with frost from her breath; she bought a can of tomatoes as though it were Orient fruit; and returned home planning to surprise Kennicott with an omelet creole for dinner.

So brilliant was the snow-glare that when she entered the house she saw the door-knobs, the newspaper on the table, every white surface as dazzling mauve, and her head was dizzy in the pyrotechnic dimness. When her eyes had recovered she felt expanded, drunk with health, mistress of life. The world was so luminous that she sat down at her rickety little desk in the living-room to make a poem. (She got no farther than "The sky is bright, the sun is warm, there ne'er will be another storm.")

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As research for Carol's new Gopher Prairie Dramatic Association, she and her husband attend several plays in




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