Chapter XV, page 143
Sam Cardinella, the narrator recounts, was hanged at six o’clock in the morning at the county jail. Other men are slated to be hanged as well. They are all brought out into the yard where the gallows sit, but Sam has to be carried. Priests counsel him to “‘Be a man, my son.’” But when they bring the hood to cover Sam’s head, he craps in his pants, and the men holding him drop him. The strap him to a chair. He is hanged sitting in the chair.
This vignette offers no reference as to where the hanging takes place, what crime Sam has committed, or when the hanging is taking place, other than the time of day. This lack of detail keeps the story boiled down to one moment in which a man faces death. It does not matter why Sam is being hanged or what sort of man he is. In this moment, he is counseled to be a man, to face death bravely and with dignity. Yet he does not. Sam perhaps stands for all men who know that part of being a man is being tough and brave in the face of death, yet who feel fear anyway. The question at the heart of this vignette is “What does being a man mean?”
“Big Two-Hearted River: Part II,” pages 145-156
In the morning, Nick awakes to a beautiful day and is so excited about going fishing that he has to make himself slow down and prepare a breakfast. While he heats water for coffee, he takes an empty bottle to the meadow and scoops up grasshoppers, placing a stick in the opening as a stopper.
He makes buckwheat pancakes, spreading one with apple butter and saving it in his pocket. He cuts bread and an onion to make onion sandwiches, also stowing these in his pocket for lunch.
He prepares his fly fishing gear: his rod, the hook, the leaders. He hangs the bottle of grasshoppers around his neck and slings a flour sack tied in the corners over a shoulder. Then he heads to the river. The first fish that Nick hooks is a trout that he returns to the stream. The fish shelters near a rock, and Nick strokes him with a finger. When the fish jets off, Nick is satisfied that it is not hurt. He is proud the he, unlike other fishermen he has seen, knew to wet his hands before touching a fish, so as not to impart a fungus to the fish.
Nick wades deep into the current, baits his hook with a grasshopper, and hooks a very large, strong fish. The adrenaline rush of fighting the big fish ends when Nick discovers that the fish has broken the line and gotten away. He feels shaky and has to sit down. He knows that fish is mad.
Nick collects himself by sitting on a log in the meadow, smoking, letting go of his disappointment. He then goes back into the water and casts again, this time hooking another, very nice trout, which he places in the flour sack. He fills the flour sack with water and lets it drag in the current next to him.
Carefully, skillfully, Nick wades the stream, assessing fishing holes, and he gets another trout to stow in his bag. He stops for lunch, then continues to fish. He comes to the swamp but does not like the dangerous look of it. He decides not to fish there. Instead, he takes out a knife and cleans his two fish. He places them in the sack, rolls it up, and heads back to camp. He thinks that there are plenty of days in which he can tackle the swamp, if he chooses to.
As Nick wades into the river, he restores himself. Like the trout, he finds himself strong enough to hold steady in the current. He is not greedy, seeking to get more fish than he needs. He accepts his disappointment about the big fish that got away and does not let it spoil his pleasure. Although the swamp intimidates him with its dark, shaded fishing holes—reminiscent of the fear and dark places he had to endure in the war—he realizes that the war has not marked him with fear forever. Someday, Nick will go into that swamp, and he will not be afraid. He will go into the rest of his life without fear. Returning to his roots in nature has given him healing and courage. Like the trout, he can withstand the currents of life.
“L’Envoi,” page 157
The narrator meets the king in the garden, where the kind introduces him to the queen as she tends her roses. They sit beneath a shade tree and drink whiskey. The king says the revolutionary committee does not allow him outside the palace grounds. The king jokes that, while others are being shot, it is an achievement not to get oneself shot. The narrator says that, “like all Greeks, he [the king] wanted to go to America.”
Contrasted with the beauty and freedom Nick experiences in America, the king’s surroundings of palace and garden offer a different kind of majesty, but are a prison nevertheless. Because this vignette comes directly after “Big Two-Hearted River: Part II,” it amplifies the meaning of the Big Two-Hearted River stories. Nick returns to an America that, for him, is pristine and untouched and embodies the myth of America as a place of freedom, of rugged individualism, of invention. It is a place where a man can find himself. The king is imprisoned in a world defined by politics and civilization and relationships. Nick, in the Michigan woods, is defined only by himself.