Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Hired Girls:
Lena and Tiny listen to Anson Kirkpatrick, "Marshall Field's man," play the piano and tell jokes and stories at the Boys' Home Hotel on Saturday nights. Lena tells Jim that she hopes he'll become a traveling salesman when he grows up because they lead such colorful lives. Jim watches Lena help her little brother, Chris, buy a Christmas present for their mother at the dry goods store. Chris doesn't know whether to get a handkerchief monogrammed with a "B" for Berthe or with an "M" for Mother; Lena advises him to get one with a "B" — it will please her because no one calls her by her name anymore. When a neighbor comes in to fetch Chris for the long ride home, Lena watches her brother climb into the wagon and she admits to Jim that she misses her family sometimes.
Winter clamps down hard on the town. Jim spends his evenings at the Harlings' whenever he can because he finds life there more exciting than with his elderly grandparents. When Mr. Harling isn't home, the children listen to music, play charades, make taffy, dance, and tell stories. One evening, Ántonia tells about a tramp who committed suicide by diving headfirst into a threshing machine; she can't understand why anyone would want to die in the summertime.
A pleasant break in the monotony of winter comes one Saturday night when Jim goes to the hotel to hear Blind d'Arnault, a black pianist. The musician has the happiest face Jim has seen since he left Virginia. Blind d'Arnault hears the hired girls — Tiny, Mary Dusak, Lena, and Ántonia — dancing in the dining room, and Anson Kirkpatrick coaxes them to come into the parlor and dance with the men, although Mr. Gardener feels uneasy about this irregularity. Afterward, Jim walks Ántonia back to the Harlings, and they stand talking outside the front gate until the cold chills the restlessness out of them.
The country people are isolated, but town dwellers have easy access to the outside world. Traveling salesmen come in by train every weekend, and they gather at the Boys' Home Hotel to listen to music and tell stories. The trains also bring musicians such as Blind d'Arnault. The townspeople enjoy news and culture by traveling only a short distance from home, whereas country people, who would have to journey for miles, are cut off from these luxuries. Notice that winter does not deprive Jim and the girls of a night out, but remember that when they were living on the farm, the Burdens had a homemade Christmas because a blizzard kept Jake from going to town to shop.
In this section, we learn that Lena is not as artificial and shallow as she at first appeared to be. She counsels Chris to buy the handkerchief with their mother's initial on it because it will please her, and she confides in Jim that she misses her family. This is proof that underneath her china-doll facade, she is warmhearted and sensitive. We also learn something of the Lingard family; little Chris, who works at a cold, hard job and desperately needs an overcoat, shows his generosity when he spends his money on Christmas presents for his mother and six younger siblings.
In this section, Cather contrasts the cold outside with the warmth inside in several ways. For example, note how the children, hungry for beauty, huddle outside the Methodist Church to watch the crude blues and reds in the stained glass windows. Another example of a pocket of warmth amidst the cold of winter is the circle of camaraderie in the Harling home. In addition, the dreariness of winter is relieved by the appearance of Blind d'Arnault. Nearly every color adjective used to describe this man is related to yellow, a warm color: yellow fingers, gold watch, topaz ring, yellow man, and a gold-headed cane. He is also called an "African god of pleasure, full of strong, savage blood." The cold drabness of winter serves as backdrop against which shines the brilliance of d'Arnault and his emotional piano performance.
We are reminded of Jim's southern background when he comments that Blind d'Arnault's face is the happiest he has seen since he left Virginia. We are also reminded of the newness of the small-town atmosphere of Black Hawk. In one sentence, Cather calls to mind much that has already happened in the story.
Booth and Barrett Edwin Booth (1833-1893) and John Barrett (1838-1891), two prominent nineteenth-century Shakespearean actors, formed a theatrical troupe in 1887 and traveled around the country putting on dramatic productions.
Buying "findings" for Mrs. Thomas Findings are small articles used in various trades; in the case of Mrs. Thomas, a dressmaker, these would be buttons, hooks, fringe, and the like.
cinders any matter, as coal or wood, burned out or partly burned, but not reduced to ashes.
cut bands cutting pieces of twine or metal to be used for binding sheaves of grain.
commercial travellers traveling salesmen.
Get your back up an order to show some courage. Anson Kirkpatrick says this to Johnnie Gardener, who worries that his wife won't like it when she hears that the hired girls have been dancing with the men who are staying at the hotel.
Marshall Field's man a salesman representing Marshall Field's large retail dry-goods store in Chicago.
Mary Anderson an actress (1859-1940) who was noted for her beauty and her flexible voice. She retired from the stage in 1889 after suffering a nervous collapse during a performance in Washington, D.C.
"retail trade" a customer, rather than a retail merchant, who is purchasing items for resale.
the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted Although slavery was illegal, many white people treated blacks as inferiors and denied them rights and courtesies that they themselves expected.
threshing the act of freeing grain or seed from hulls.