It’s fall, and Ruby and Ada are working in a field. They pull weeds and harvest turnips and onions. As time goes on, Ada has been experiencing the pleasure of watching crops grow: she feels a sense of ownership and personal accomplishment that she’d never known.
This is when Ada’s character really starts to change. In the first chapters of the novel, she’s passive—just waiting for her food to run out. Now, she’s actually making something. Maturity, Frazier suggests, is all about productivity—by working on her farm, Ada comes to earn her farm.
Ada and Ruby give shelter and food to a group of travelers who are moving from Tennessee to South Carolina. The travelers—who are mostly women, since many of their husbands are off fighting for the South—are accompanied by a pair of “kind slaves.” (The narrator notes that the two slaves could easily have killed their masters, but don’t.) The travelers tell Ruby and Ada that they were attacked by Federals and driven away from their homes.
This is another passage that came under fire when the novel was first published. Some critics found these scenes a little “vanilla” in their idealization of race relations between black slaves and their Southern masters (it’s never explicitly stated why the slaves don’t kill their masters, except that the slaves are “kind,” but the implication seems to be that there’s some extra bond of trust or friendship between them). This section is also important because it shows the quid pro quo of hospitality working in the opposite direction—instead of Inman receiving hospitality, Ada is now offering it.
As time goes on, Ada notices that Ruby, despite being a very capable farmer, has a strange way of getting things done. She’s very superstitious, and believes in “signs” that predict the future. She’s very attentive to small creatures, like bugs and worms, because she thinks that they provide clues about the best areas for farming. Ruby explains that she got most of her knowledge from elderly women she knew when she was growing up. Ada hesitantly suggests that some of the signals Ruby interprets aren’t “signs” of anything; they’re just random chance. Ruby dismisses this idea immediately. In her opinion, there are no accidents.
One of the most important motifs of the novel is the ambiguous “sign”—sometimes this sign is a flock of crows, or a cluster of bugs, or any mysterious sight that seems to “mean” something. Ruby, a superstitious optimist, believes that there’s some inherent meaning in the signs—this reflects her faith that life itself has some predetermined meaning. Ada, on the other hand, doubts that there’s a “master plan,” and for this reason, she distrusts signs.
After talking with Ruby, Ada walks around her property, staring up at the birds. She wonders if the numbers of birds in each flock, or the type of bird in a flock, contains some kind of secret message. In the evening, Ruby and Ada sit on the porch, reading from Homer.
One of the key ambiguities in Homer’s Odyssey is whether Odysseus is in control of his own destiny—i.e., whether his adventures have some kind of an order or are preordained—or whether it’s all random and he has free will. Thus, it’s appropriate that Frazier pairs Homer with the sight of the flock of birds—another ambiguous sign that might signal God’s plan, or nothing at all. In yet another connection, the practice of augury (predicting the future by watching the movements of birds) was also practiced in ancient Greece, and it even features in Homer’s work.
Late at night, Ada thinks about a party she attended just before the attack on Fort Sumter (i.e., the beginning of the Civil War). She explains what she remembers of the party to Ruby. At the party, a rich, foolish man named Blount flirted with Ada, and Ada reluctantly allowed him to walk with her by the river, and then take a boat ride with her. On the boat, Blount talked too much: he was an arrogant, proud man, and a diehard supporter of the Confederacy. Blount confessed to Ada that he was scared of the possibility of having to enlist in a war. Ada didn’t know what to tell Blount—for some reason, she couldn’t force herself to say, “It’ll be all right.”
It’s interesting to see the way that Frazier parallels American history with personal history, i.e., the way he parallels Ada’s life with the milestones of the Civil War. It’s important to keep in mind that the Civil War is the backdrop to Ada’s experience with Blount—not the other way around. This signals that history, as Frazier understands it, is always told from the perspective of individuals with their own unique problems and worries. Ada, like many of her peers, can’t quite force herself to believe that the Civil War will be a success for the South—thus, she can’t reassure Blount.
Ada continues telling Ruby about the party. Blount gave Ada a kiss on the cheek, sensing that Ada was uninterested in him, and left her alone. Afterwards, she went into her room, where she was surprised to find a strange woman. On closer inspection, Ada—who was very drunk at this point—realized that she was staring at her own reflection. The next day Ada ran into Blount in the streets, and Blount seemed eerily calm. Ada never saw him again, but later learned that he was killed at Gettysburg.
Blount doesn’t appear in the novel for very long, but he’s a strangely tragic character. Blount isn’t a particularly good man, but he isn’t a villain, either. And yet he earns the same fate as most of his peers, whether good or bad: he’s killed in the war. It’s often said that war is indifferent; if you’re a soldier, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or not—your chances of living or dying are still tragically random.
Back in the present, Ada and Ruby stare out into the night sky. Ada feels an overpowering sense of loneliness as she makes out the outline of Cold Mountain. She remembers something Monroe told her—the sense of loneliness is really the sense that God has vanished.
This is a sobering chapter because it reminds us that in America after the Civil War, there was a powerful sense of disillusionment—that the old order of things has collapsed, and even God himself has vanished, leaving human beings to fend for themselves. Frazier’s point—for now, just hinted at—is that this isn’t necessarily tragic: there’s a kind of freedom and joy in aloneness and self-determination.