American Gods

American Gods

American Gods Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter begins with an e.e. cummings poem praising the arrival of spring. Shadow makes it to Lakeside in the morning, surprised at how little it has changed while he was gone. Though the ice is getting thinner, the “klunker” still sits on the ice, reminding all the citizens of Lakeside of their wager over when the lake will take the car forever. Shadow walks carefully onto the ice, feeling like the hero of an action or detective movie as the ice cracks and pops beneath him. He knows this is dangerous, but must know if his theory is correct.
After a long winter, spring dominates this last chapter, as Shadow finally gives everyone a chance at new growth by exposing old lies. In Lakeside, the lies are focused on the klunker car, once a benign harbinger of spring, and now a dangerous omen of the mysterious darkness lurking in Lakeside.
Themes
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
When Shadow reaches the car, he can feel the foul atmosphere surrounding the vehicle. He makes a lock pick out of the antenna and gets into the car, then pulls the handle inside to open the trunk. Ice scatters everywhere as Shadow goes around to check the trunk. Inside, Alison McGovern’s body is curled up, her face frozen in fear. Shadow wonders who put her here and tries to pull her out. At that moment (9:10 on the morning of March 23rd), the ice under the car’s front wheels cracks. The car slips into the water, taking Shadow with it.
Shadow finds Alison, the missing girl, but does not yet have all the pieces as to why Alison was placed in the trunk as a sacrifice. Spring arrives in the form of the ice cracking as Shadow finds the body, as if it were waiting for someone to expose the truth. It is exactly the time that Shadow guessed in the klunker raffle, suggesting that Shadow’s nature as a sun god gave him special insight to when spring would arrive.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
Underneath the ice, Shadow opens his eyes and sees the klunkers of years past, impossibly clear through the murky water. He knows that each car will have a sacrificed child in the trunk. Shadow’s foot gets pinned in the mud underneath the fallen car and he struggles to pull it out before he runs out of breath. He manages to wriggle out and rushes to the surface of the lake, but then gets stuck under an ice sheet. His strength leaves him in the freezing water, but Shadow’s fury at dying just as he has come to life gives him enough strength to break one hand through. Another hand grabs his and pulls him up onto the surface of the lake. Shadow closes his eyes to rest for a minute and sees Whiskey Jack, a thunderbird woman, and the Buffalo Man standing in a plain shaking their heads.
Just as Shadow found in the minutes that a child had been lost each winter in Lakeside in the 1800s, it is clear that each years’ klunker must have a sacrificed child inside it, explaining where children like Sandy Olsen actually disappeared. In contrast to Shadow’s passive life, calm acceptance of death on the world tree, and subsequent request for “nothing,” Shadow now fights hard for his life to continue, having seen what good he can do in the world as he continues to find his purpose and share the truth. Whiskey Jack and Buffalo Man seem to tell Shadow that it is not his time to die yet, suggesting that America stills needs Shadow.
Themes
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
The Sacredness of American Land Theme Icon
Shadow wakes in pain, finding himself in a small bathroom hot with steam. Hinzelmann tenderly helps Shadow ease into a bathtub of hot water, though the sudden change in temperature hurts Shadow’s frozen body. Shadow tries to correct Hinzelmann when the old man calls him “Mike,” but Hinzelmann doesn’t listen. After the bath, Shadow puts on a robe and sips hot coffee with a shot of schnapps in it, sitting in front of Hinzelmann’s fire. He thanks Hinzelmann for saving his life, and Hinzelmann bashfully says that he was just there checking the time in case the klunker crashed through, and did what anyone would have done in an emergency.
Hinzelmann prefers lies to the truth, as seen in his desire to keep calling Shadow “Mike.” Hinzelmann revels in his reputation as the “good guy” of the town, yet his house has a sinister atmosphere that suggests that Hinzelmann is not the hero he seems. Hinzelmann is also deeply connected to the klunker, as the one who initiates the contest every year and judges the winner, suggesting that he may have something to do with the missing children.
Themes
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Deception Theme Icon
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Shadow’s head clears after the shock of the cold water and he wonders how Hinzelmann, a small old man, could pull his own large frame out of the water or carry him into the house. Shadow asks Hinzelmann why he saved his life, given that Shadow had found out that Hinzelmann was the one who killed all the kids each winter. Hinzelmann answers that he owed a debt to Wednesday. Shadow understands that Hinzelmann is the reason that Lakeside has always been a “good” town, making a dark deal with the townspeople that the town will prosper as long as they give up one child per winter – though none of the citizens are consciously aware that this is what they have agreed to.
Noticing Hinzelmann’s supernatural strength, Shadow finally realizes that this old man is not who he seems to be. Wednesday has again manipulated Shadow’s life, though he saves it this time by using Hinzelmann to protect Shadow. Hinzelmann has been exacting a terrible price from the townspeople of Lakeside, trading one child’s life for another year of good jobs and low crime rates. Shadow recognizes that this sacrifice is too much—such means can never be justified by any ends.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
Shadow realizes that Hinzelmann controls who comes into and out of Lakeside, angrily asking Hinzelmann if he brought Sam Black Crow and Audrey Burton here on purpose so that Wednesday would be forced out. Hinzelmann’s imp-like face turns into a gargoyle scowl as Shadow reminds him that this year’s klunker’s trunk is open and the townspeople will find Alison when she floats to the top. Hinzelmann grabs a poker from the fireplace, and Shadow knows that Hinzelmann plans to kill him to keep the town’s secret safe. Shadow goads Hinzelmann, telling him the police force have computers now and can more easily pick up on the pattern of a disappearance every single winter.
HInzelmann’s control explains why Laura could not see Shadow in Lakeside, and also why the only two people capable of exposing Shadow’s secret arrived on the same day. Yet Hinzelmann’s control on the town is slipping, as his method of keeping the town safe will not survive the newer technology that police could use to track these disappearances, and the townspeople’s own suspicions about what is happening to their children. It seems as though Shadow is going to have to sacrifice his life for the truth once more, having arranged for the townspeople to find Alison but rendering himself vulnerable to Hinzelmann’s wrath.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
Hinzelmann tells Shadow that he is an Old God who was turned into a “kobold” in the Black Forest of Germany. He then seems to challenge Shadow to kill him and set him free from his long years watching over this town. Knowing that he is letting the hundreds of sacrificed children down, Shadow says that he can’t kill the being who saved his life. Hinzelmann shows Shadow his secret shame, his body morphing into a five-year-old child pierced with two ancient-looking swords. Shadow then understands that Hinzelmann was a child raised for the express purpose of being sacrificed so that the body could be dried and used as a totem for their god.
A kobold is a forest spirit in Germanic folklore, much like the fairies of Irish myths that can either help or harm human kind. Shadow’s vision of how Hinzelmann was created matches the dream that Shadow had when he first came to Lakeside, though he does not remember it. Hinzelmann’s true nature makes his sacrifice of children even more perverse, as Hinzelmann should understand the fear and pain of being sacrificed enough not to inflict that suffering on others. Yet Hinzelmann, like all the gods, is willing to do anything to maintain his power.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Chad Mulligan suddenly comes into the room, his gun pointed at the floor, soothingly telling Hinzelmann that he came over to tell him that the klunker went through the ice. Hinzelmann tries to accuse Shadow of threatening him, but Chad reveals that he heard their entire conversation about the lake. Hinzelmann raises the fire poker again, then throws it at Chad. At the same time, Chad shoots Hinzelmann in the head. Hinzelmann misses, but Chad does not.
Shadow may not have been able to kill Hinzelmann, but Chad has no such limitations. Significantly, it is not Shadow the demi-god who finally frees Lakeside from Hinzelmann’s terrible reign, but Chad, a normal human who had the power to kill a kobold like Hinzelmann because humans created him in the first place.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
Chad woodenly shifts Hinzelmann’s body so that his head is in the fire in the fireplace. Shadow assures Chad that the shot was self-defense, not murder, but Chad can’t seem to hear him. Emotionless, Chad gets Shadow out of the house and sets fire to Hinzelmann’s apartment so no one will know what happened.
Though it may have been the best thing for the town that Hinzelmann is gone, Chad still feels the heavy toll of taking a life. Chad respects life, doing what has to be done to keep others safe, but not relishing in the violence as the gods do.
Themes
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In the car, Shadow asks Chad what happened with Audrey. Chad tells him that Audrey returned to Eagle Point and broke his heart, while Shadow tells him that the whole thing was Hinzelmann’s fault anyway. Shadow asks Chad what he will do now, and Chad explains that his only choice is to commit suicide, now that he is a murderer. Shadow can tell that Hinzelmann is manipulating Chad with his last dying wish, and so Shadow uses his own power of persuasion to convince Chad to let it go. Shadow mentally pushes the dark cloud out of Chad’s head, erasing Chad’s memories of this awful day, and tells Chad that Lakeside needs him now more than ever, subtly leading Chad to believe that Marguerite needs him as well.
It seems that Hinzelmann demands one last sacrifice even after he is dead, trying to convince Chad to sacrifice himself as the final payment of blood to the kobold. Shadow is able to overrule that control, however, and point Chad in a better direction for his future. Now that Lakeside’s peace will not be maintained magically, Chad will actually have to work as a policeman. There is no “happy ending” for Lakeside, but instead a return to reality. Gaiman suggests that the everyday struggles of normal life are better than a supernaturally enforced peace.
Themes
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
After sending Chad to see Marguerite, Shadow drives south to Madison, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Samantha Black Crow closes up the coffee shop she works at, putting away the leftover pastries and singing along to the radio. Her girlfriend, Natalie, comes in and reads the paper while she waits for Sam’s shift to be over. Natalie points out an article on the changing face of America, while Sam comments that things do feel like the arrival of spring after a long winter.
Sam and Natalie, a same-sex couple, represent another way that America is changing. Gaiman presents this change as a move to a better, more tolerant culture that is able to accept all people. Sam, still in touch with the supernatural, is able to feel the arrival of spring (both literal and metaphorical) that Shadow caused when he stopped Wednesday and Hinzelmann.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
The Sacredness of American Land Theme Icon
Natalie’s article comments that many Americans have reported strange dreams lately. As the two of them walk out of the coffee shop, Sam admits that she sometimes has odd dreams of people falling from the sky, a woman with a buffalo head, and a man she once knew named Shadow. Natalie starts to ask more about Shadow, and then notices that Sam is now carrying flowers that she didn’t have before. Sam pretends that Natalie gave them to her, then takes them home and casts them in bronze. Even after Sam and Natalie break up, the strange appearance of the flowers becomes a story that Sam tells all her girlfriends.
Sam’s dreams sound suspiciously similar to Shadow’s, suggesting that she too has some affinity for the spirit of the land, which appears to her as a Buffalo Woman. Gaiman ensures that his characters’ lives do not end when the book does, here moving into Sam’s future and showing how she will change and grow. Though many answers have been revealed, Gaiman avoids tying everything up neatly, and suggests through Sam’s mystery of the flowers that life will always include some strange elements that can never be explained.
Themes
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
The Sacredness of American Land Theme Icon
Shadow parks near the Madison capital building and calls information to find out where Sam will be. He finds the coffee shop where Sam works and waits for her, but then does not want to interrupt Sam’s conversation with her girlfriend. He puts the flowers in Sam’s hands, goes back to his car, and heads off for Chicago.
Shadow lets go of the past and uses his talent for magic to do one last kindness for Sam. His fundamentally good nature shows through as he gives Sam this gift without expecting anything in return – indeed making it impossible for Sam to repay him by keeping his identity secret. Unlike most gods, Shadow gives more than he takes from other people.
Themes
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
Shadow reaches Czernobog’s building in Chicago, noticing that the entire place seems much cleaner than the first time he visited. Zorya Utrennyaya opens the door and tells Shadow to leave and come back tomorrow. Zorya Verchernyaya and Zorya Utrennyaya are busy preparing for Bielebog’s arrival, and continue to tell Shadow to come back tomorrow, but Shadow insists on staying today. Zorya Utrennyaya brings coffee, saying that Czernobog went to the park and will be back soon. Shadow waits, knowing that it is his choice to fulfill this promise.
Bielebog, as the light counterpart to Czernobog’s darkness, arrives with the spring that Shadow brings, after a metaphorical winter that lasted for many years for the gods. The spring cleaning is a sign that these Slavic gods may be able to update their ways and survive in the present now that they have been woken up by Shadow’s speech. Shadow again asserts his own decisions by using his life the way he wishes. He is not coerced into keeping his dangerous deal with Czernobog, but keeps it of his own accord because he finally has control over his own life.
Themes
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
Czernobog arrives home and Shadow greets him, saying that he has come to fulfill his promise. Czernobog tells Shadow to come tomorrow, but Shadow insists that he is ready for the blow. Czernobog reluctantly picks up an old case and takes out a hammer. Czernobog thanks Shadow for bringing spring, then tells Shadow to close his eyes. Shadow feels a gentle tap on his forehead, and Czernobog pronounces the debt paid. Czernobog smiles, brighter than Shadow has ever seen, and invites Shadow back to play checkers whenever he wants once Czernobog has completed his spring transformation into Bielebog.
Czernobog also shows a new facet to his personality, admitting his gratitude to Shadow and choosing not to exact his sacrifice. As Czernobog and Bielebog are actually the same person, Gaiman again pronounces the importance of balance. Winter must end sometime, just as spring cannot last forever, for both have their role to play. Shadow helps usher in a new period of growth for the gods after their long decline—now hopefully they can better adapt to the future in America.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon