Barn Burning

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Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes Character Analysis

The youngest son of the Snopes family, ten-year-old Sarty is named after a Confederate officer named Colonel Sartoris who comes up in a number of William Faulkner’s other works. The story often calls Sarty simply “the boy.” Sarty is in the process of developing his own character and values over the course of the story. He feels a fierce, instinctive loyalty to the rest of his family, but that loyalty coexists both with a feeling that his connection to his family is inevitable, and with a hunger after other, alternative kinds of connections. Sarty has an implicit idea of justice that conflicts with his father’s, for instance, and he also—unlike other members of his family—manages to retain a sense of hope for the future, as epitomized by his reaction to the elegant, welcoming-looking home of Major de Spain family.

Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes Quotes in Barn Burning

The Barn Burning quotes below are all either spoken by Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes or refer to Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Barn Burning published in 1995.
Barn Burning Quotes

He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair, ourn! mine and him both! He’s my father!) stood.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes, Mr. Harris, The Justice (I)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

As the story opens, Sarty is in a general story that doubles for a courtroom, where Mr. Harris—his “father’s enemy”—has made a complaint against his father for allegedly burning Harris’s barn down. Sarty cannot quite see what is going on—as a ten-year-old boy, he is only partially granted access to and participation in the world of the adults. But he knows enough to recognize that Mr. Harris and his father are opponents, and that for this reason he too should consider Harris as his own enemy.

Nonetheless, this passage makes clear that Sarty is struggling to align himself wholeheartedly with his father. He corrects his own thoughts in “despair,” as if conscious of the huge effort that this takes him. And he cannot find a rational justification for being loyal to his father—blood alone, the fact that the man is his father, will have to suffice. At this point, we do not yet know much about Abner Snopes, but we do immediately get a glimpse of Sarty’s tumultuous attempts to define himself in relation to his father, and determine his own sense of justice at the same time.

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And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 7-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, the narrator moves back and forth through time, positing a number of hypotheticals regarding the relationship between Sarty and his father, as Abner makes a small, “niggardly” (that is, stingy) fire while the family rests on the way to their next community. Abner has a reputation for playing with fire, of course, for setting fires that extend and expand out of control—making it in some ways odd that he takes care to make such a small, puny one now. But this passage suggests that Sarty is still too young to understand something vital about his father’s character, and about his relationship to fire. Fire is in fact something—one of the few things—that Abner feels like he can control. He can manipulate it exactly as he wants to, whether that means keeping it small or ensuring that it will be as destructive as it can be. Abner takes solace in fire’s dual power for civilization and comfort and for destruction—it is a “weapon” for him which he can use against others, even when it seems that nothing else he does will change the way things are.

He could see his father against the stars but without face or depth—a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin: “You were fixing to tell them. You would have told him.”

Related Characters: Abner Snopes (speaker), Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Abner has pulled his son aside in order to tell him that he suspects him of disloyalty: he saw Sarty’s anxiety and desperation in the courtroom, and interpreted that to mean that if Mr. Harris had made him testify, Sarty would have told the truth and betrayed his father. Abner does not recognize that Sarty had, in fact, committed himself to lying and defending his father—and Sarty cannot find a way to let him know.

This quotation, however, is also significant in terms of the way that Abner is described from Sarty’s own viewpoint. Sarty often sees his father as flat, as two-dimensional, and as unemotional or “bloodless.” To him this is a puzzle, since many of his father’s actions seem to stem from rage, like setting barns on fire. But the rage is siphoned into these acts, while Abner’s personality remains cold and impassive. By seeing his father as a two-dimensional shadow, Sarty intuits (even if he cannot fully put into words) what an impenetrable mystery his father remains to him, and how little he can imagine making his father understand his own fears.

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.”

Related Characters: Abner Snopes (speaker), Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Abner says these words as he is about to strike Sarty as punishment for his disloyalty—or what Abner imagines is his disloyalty, since he is simply conjecturing what Sarty would have done if Mr. Harris had made him testify in the courtroom.

Here Abner lectures his son on the proper attitude to have regarding his family. For Abner, what it means to grow up is to “stick to your own blood,” even if that means lying in a court of law. Abner seems to see this loyalty as justifiable for its own sake rather than for some larger purpose—or rather because it is the best way to ensure one’s own safety in a hostile world. Throughout the story, Sarty attempts to figure out to what extent he buys into such a view of loyalty and family heritage. Here, he is still eager to please his father and to work harder at maintaining a wholeheartedly loyal attitude to him.

It was as if the blow and the following calm, outrageous voice still rang, repercussed, divulging nothing to him save the terrible handicap of being young, the light weight of his few years, just heavy enough to prevent his soaring free of the world as it seemed to be ordered by not heavy enough to keep him footed solid in it, to resist it and try to change the course of its events.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, Abner Snopes
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarty is thinking about the fact that although his father had hit him at other times before the previous night, he had never stopped afterwards to explain why he had done it. And yet this passage suggests that his father’s explanation did not really clear anything up—it “divulged” nothing to Sarty in terms of helping him to understand how he should act or what his father wants from him.

What Sarty is beginning to recognize, however, is the painful awkwardness of his particular age. He is, as the story has made clear, especially good at noticing what goes on around him, and as he is growing older he understands more and more about what is at stake in the various characters’ actions. But Sarty is still only ten years old, and he is yoked to his father and to his family in general with what seem like unbreakable bonds. He is just old enough, then, to perceive the injustices and unfairnesses of the world, but not old enough to choose how to respond to them himself, and it is this feeling of being so out of place, out of joint, that accounts for much of Sarty’s anxiety.

Hit’s big as a court house he thought quietly, with a surge of a peace and joy whose reason he could not have thought into words, being too young for that: They are safe from him.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarty has accompanied his father up to the entrance of the de Spain house, the home of the Snopes family’s employers. Sarty has only known “poor country” until this point, and has never seen a family home this big—the only building he can think to compare it with is a courthouse. Abner’s reaction to such wealth and disparity with his own situation is resentment mingled with defiance, along with a desire to scoff at such wealth. Sarty has an entirely different first reaction. His feeling is not one of resentment but of “peace and joy.” Sarty has never known much security or stability, and to him this house represents both.

But Sarty’s initial impression also has something darker about it, something that we learn as readers through the narrator, even if Sarty himself cannot put it into words. That is, Sarty so appreciates the house because it seems impervious to his father’s destructive power. Sarty may not even want to admit it to himself, but he does have a different set of values and different sense of justice than his father—though the only way he can articulate this difference is through emotion rather than language.

And now the boy saw the prints of the stiff foot on the doorjamb and saw them appear on the pale rug behind the machinelike deliberation of the foot which seemed to bear (or transmit) twice the weight which the body compassed.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, Abner Snopes
Related Symbols: The Rug
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Step by step, Abner slowly and deliberately begins a process of destructiveness (and self-destructiveness) that will prove nothing has changed, despite Sarty’s hopes to the contrary. In this passage, we watch through Sarty’s eyes as Abner, who has stepped in horse droppings on purpose, now makes sure to step on the expensive imported rug at the entrance to the de Spain house, and to rub it in.

Like so many of Abner’s actions as perceived by Sarty, this one is “stiff” and yet very intentional. At the same time, Sarty is left to attempt to intuit the meaning of Abner’s actions, since Abner never explains himself, nor gives his son any other lesson than the importance of sticking to one’s own family. Sarty—or rather the reader, since as we know, Sarty is in a profoundly in-between stage of childhood and maturation—is left to interpret Abner’s action as reflecting his defiant scorn of the fine house of his employer, and of its fine rug that cost more than Abner will ever make in his life. Ruining the rug, of course, will not give Abner the wealth of the de Spains—indeed, it can only harm his own chances to stay afloat—but it is one small way he can assert his own independence and self-control.

Maybe he even won’t collect the twenty bushels. Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish—corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses—gone, done with for ever and ever.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

As he sometimes allows himself to do, here Sarty imagines an alternate reality for his family, one in which his father’s destructive and self-destructive actions might cede to a more stable harmonious way of life. Specifically, Sarty is referring here to the twenty bushels of corn that the Major de Spain has decided to count against Abner’s crop, as payment for ruining the rug—though more as punishment than payment, given that Abner would never make enough in a lifetime to pay for the rug entirely.

Here Sarty indulges in a different kind of calculation, which for him implies a different kind of justice. Rationally, the balance sheet that he sets up doesn’t make too much sense—it’s not clear how the corn, the rug, and the fire all will add up to nothing, though there is an implication that Sarty is thinking that if his father doesn’t go burn down de Spain’s barn perhaps in some way that will cosmically balance the scales of justice. And, if his father refrains, then it does seem to Sarty that, in the tribunal of life if not in the courtroom, his family has paid for their sins.

Sarty also makes a connection between the system of crime and punishment by which Major de Spain seeks to deal with Abner, and the balance sheet that he feels in his own relationship with his father. Sarty is constantly being “pulled two ways”: one way encourages him to be loyal to his father no matter what, and follow him in his resentment and defiance; but the other way pulls him to insist on his own sense of justice, distinct from his father’s.

He saw the man in spectacles sitting at the plank table and he did not need to be told this was a Justice of the Peace; he sent one glare of fierce, exultant partisan defiance at the man in collar and cravat now, whom he had seen but twice before in his life, who wore on his face an expression not of rage but of amazed unbelief which the boy could not have known was at the incredible circumstance of being sued by one of his own tenants.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, Abner Snopes, Major de Spain, The Justice (II)
Page Number: 17-18
Explanation and Analysis:

For the second time in the story, Sarty is entering a courtroom, this time because his father is suing the Major de Spain for charging him twenty bushels of corn against his crop after Abner ruined de Spain’s imported rug. As he enters the room, Sarty recognizes the Justice of the Peace from the physical marks of authority and stability, from his spectacles to his position at the front of the room. Just as he did before, when his father was in a trial against Mr. Harris, Sarty embraces a “partisan” stance: that is, he firmly takes his father’s side against whomever the enemy might be. While Sarty’s loyalty has begun to waver throughout the story, such an event as a trial makes it easier for him to want to be loyal to his father.

Meanwhile, the Major de Spain’s incredulity reflects both the entrenched inequality between landowner and sharecropper in the South, as well as Abner Snopes’s refusal to acquiesce to these social norms. Having gotten to know the justice system at first hand, Abner now imagines he can manipulate the system to his own advantage, using its tools against the Major de Spain. The Major, in turn, is shocked rather than angry—just as he had been when he realized that Abner ruined the rug even more by cleaning it—that Abner would even dare to sue him, rather than submit to being punished. The Major de Spain has never had to question his superiority, as indeed many people in the South at this time did not. Abner, then, comes off more sympathetically here, even if he cannot really claim the moral or legal high ground. Abner does have the nerve to challenge a legitimately unfair and exploitative situation, even if he is doing so in both horribly destructive (and self-destructive) ways.

Then he was moving, running, outside the house, toward the stable: this the old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed to him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I can’t. I can’t.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Abner has once again begun to prepare to burn down a barn. He has ordered Sarty to go fetch more oil, and although Sarty doesn’t want to, he runs outside the house to the stable to do so anyway. Here, while running, Sarty reflects on the choices that he understands to be available to him. He recognizes that he is running to get the oil not because of anything he believes himself, but because of his “blood,” his connection to his family—which means both loyalty to his father, and an inability to be free from his father even if he could choose not to be loyal.

Indeed, for the first time Sarty doesn’t halt his thoughts before they go too far; instead he allows himself to imagine running away from his father and his family. Acknowledging the fact that, on some level, he despises his father is a major event for Sarty. Even so, however, he still feels that he is unable to take the next step, to actually keep running away. It is this inability that Sarty has more trouble articulating, as he only repeats, “I can’t”—but it clearly has to do with the ties of “blood” that remain so strong for him.

“Ain’t you going to even send a nigger?” he cried. At least you sent a nigger before!”

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarty is watching his father carefully, deliberately prepare the oil in order to burn down the de Spain barn. He has watched his father do this before—indeed, young as he is, Sarty sometimes has trouble distinguishing certain instances of his father’s defiance from others, as when he began to yell and defend his father to the Justice for an entirely different charge. This time, though, there is something different: at the beginning of the story, we learned, Abner had sent a black man to warn Mr. Harris about the burning—now it looks like there will be no warning. Further, earlier Sarty had hoped that if his father didn’t burn down de Spain’s barn, perhaps everything would somehow even out. But, of course, his father does plan to burn down the barn, and even more mercilessly than he has in the past.

Sarty’s derogatory racial language comes straight from his father, as well as from the white society around him—in that sense Sarty is no different from them. But in other ways, Sarty does feel an innate sense of justice that distinguishes him from his father. He may not be able to stop his father from burning down a barn, but he cannot stand the idea that there will not even be a warning. While, in the past, Sarty has put his head down and obeyed his father, daring to question him only in his own thoughts, now his thoughts break out into speech, as he dares to challenge his father directly.

But there was no glare behind him now and he sat now, his back toward what he had called home for four days anyhow, his face toward the dark woods which he would enter when breath was strong again, small, shaking steadily in the chill darkness, hugging himself into the remainder of his thin, rotten shirt, the grief and despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair. Father. My father, he thought.

Related Characters: Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes (speaker), Abner Snopes
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

After racing to the de Spain house to warn the Major about the father, Sarty has raced away, running just like he ran to fetch the oil for his father—though this time he is running away from his family in a way that, earlier, he still could not imagine doing. While racing, he has heard two shots ring out, and while we are not explicitly told what happened, we are left to conjecture that Abner and Sarty’s brother both have been shot by de Spain, and possibly killed.

Now Sarty recognizes that he has definitively abandoned his family—indeed, he has betrayed his family’s loyalty, in the interest of a greater justice, to the extent that his father and brother may be dead. It is at this moment that Sarty’s fear turns to grief, and he begins to think once again of the more admirable qualities of his father—even though, as the narrator will go on to tell us, Sarty isn’t aware that his father was actually mercenary, in the war for his own private benefit, rather than as a patriot or hero. This passage underlines the ambivalence with which the book ends: on one hand, Sarty never turns back to his home and family; on the other hand, he continues to think of Abner as “my father,” someone to whom he will remain indelibly bound. He has abandoned his family in fact, but perhaps in doing so is bound even more closely to it in spirit.

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Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes Character Timeline in Barn Burning

The timeline below shows where the character Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes appears in Barn Burning. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Barn Burning
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...is also being used for a court of the Justice of the Peace, where a boySarty Snopes, though we’re not yet told his name—is crouched at the back, smelling the cheese... (full context)
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Sarty can’t see his father (Abner Snopes) nor his father’s “enemy” at the front; then he... (full context)
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...man who threatened him, the Justice says this doesn’t count as proof. Harris says the boy should come up and vouch for Abner—not the protagonist’s brother, who’s older, but the boy,... (full context)
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Sarty looks at the serious faces and at the shabby, older Justice beckoning him up. His... (full context)
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Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...Justice asks for his name, and he whispers “Colonel Sartoris Snopes.” The Justice says a boy with that name must tell the truth, while the boy continues to think “enemy” when... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Sarty follows his father in his stiff black coat out of the room. His father walks... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Sarty whirls around and sees the face of another boy in what looks like a red... (full context)
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Sarty’s two “hulking” sisters, his mother, and his aunt are waiting for them with their old,... (full context)
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Sarty wonders to himself whether his father is satisfied, now—maybe it’s over. His mother asks Sarty... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
His father, Sarty knows, always can stop himself—he has a “wolflike” independence and courage that impresses strangers, in... (full context)
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Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
...camps that night and makes a small, neat fire, something the father excels at. If Sarty was older, he might have wondered why the fire was so small, given his father’s... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
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And if Sarty was even older, the story suggests, he might have realized that fire spoke to something... (full context)
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When they are alone, Abner says that his son was going to tell them during the trial—would have told on him. He strikes Sarty... (full context)
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...arrive at a two-room house identical to all the dozen others they’ve lived in since Sarty was born, ten years ago. The mother and aunt begin to unload the wagon, while... (full context)
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Abner tells Sarty to accompany him to see their new employer, who the father says will own him... (full context)
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Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
The two come to a huge house: when Sarty sees it he forgets his father, his terror and despair. He’s never seen anything like... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
...comes down into a pile of fresh horse droppings, which he could have easily avoided. Sarty wonders if his father’s rage will be tempered by falling under the spell of the... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
...servant, calling him “nigger,” to get out of his way, and flings open the door. Sarty watches a dirty footprint appear on the pale rug inside the door, as if his... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Abner stops to clean his boot, and looking back at the house, tells his son disparagingly that “nigger sweat” built it, and now the Major presumably wants to mix “white... (full context)
Resentment, Race, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
Two hours later, Sarty is chopping wood while the women of his family are inside preparing food (though not... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
...the house, and tells the other to set up the wash pot (though she tells Sarty to do so). With the mother looking on anxiously, he orders the daughters to clean... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Sarty watches them all afternoon, lazily and reluctantly cleaning the rug with harsh homemade detergent while... (full context)
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...then go to bed. Abner, though, is not yet in bed, and the last thing Sarty remembers before going to sleep is his harsh silhouette bending over the rug. It feels... (full context)
Loyalty, Family, Blood Theme Icon
When Sarty comes back with the mule his father is standing with the rolled rug over his... (full context)
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Early that morning, father and son are equipping the mules for plowing when the Major rides up. He tells Abner, who... (full context)
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Sarty calls to his father and cries that he did the best he could. Mr. de... (full context)
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For the rest of that week Sarty works steadily and dutifully, which he’s learned from his mother. With the older women he... (full context)
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On Saturday, Sarty’s father orders him to gear up the wagon, and the father and two sons go... (full context)
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Sarty goes up to the Justice and cries that his father didn’t burn—but his father interrupts... (full context)
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Rather than go to the wagon, Sarty remains in the back of the room, where he can hear the Justice ask if... (full context)
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After the trial, while Sarty imagines they’ll return home, his father instead marches past the wagon to the blacksmith shop.... (full context)
Aspiration, Desperation, and Defiance Theme Icon
Independence and Justice Theme Icon
...some of the problems with the wagon, which has become run-down, and then Abner orders Sarty to hitch up the mules. Sarty listens to his father tell the blacksmith and another... (full context)
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After sundown they reach home and eat supper. Suddenly, as Sarty is sitting on the doorstep, he hears his mother cry her husband’s name and repeat,... (full context)
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Abner orders Sarty to get the can of oil from the stable. Sarty begins to ask why, but... (full context)
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Sarty runs back and hands the can to his father, crying that at least his father... (full context)
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Sarty begins to struggle, while his mother catches him in both arms. Sarty cries that he... (full context)
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...to grab him, but his sister—a twin, we now learn—is too large, slow, and impassive. Sarty races out of the house and up to the gate, running up to the big... (full context)
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Behind Sarty, the Major shouts for his horse. Sarty thinks he should cut across the park, but... (full context)
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Then Sarty springs up and continues racing, though he knows it’s too late. Even after he hears... (full context)
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By midnight Sarty reaches the top of a hill, not knowing how far he’s come, his back still... (full context)
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While Sarty will soon be hungry, for now he is only cold, so he decides to keep... (full context)