Two days after Jim's birthday, he wakes up to find his grandparents, Otto, and Jake in the kitchen, with Ambrosch asleep on a bench behind the stove. Otto explains that the night before, Mr. Shimerda had dressed in clean clothes, hung up his coat, and shot himself in his barn. Jake believes that Krajiek actually murdered Mr. Shimerda, because there was an axe by the body that fit a gash in Mr. Shimerda's head, but Otto and Jim's grandmother convince him otherwise. Jim's grandparents are furious that Mr. Shimerda would abandon his family.
Mr. Shimerda's death is the climax of Book I. His suicide, though awful, is an unsurprising outcome of his depression and struggles adapting to prairie life (though the question of whether Mr. Shimerda was murder is never completely resolved). The Burdens are furious with Mr. Shimerda because the father is supposed to support his family.
Otto goes to Black Hawk to get the priest and the coroner, and Jim's grandparents go to bring food to the Shimerdas.
Neighbors on the prairie help each other in times of tragedy.
After sitting quietly for a while and praying, Ambrosch leaves to return to his family's farm. Alone on the farm, Jim feels "considerable power and authority." He feeds the hens and the cat.
With everyone else gone, Jim is left in charge of the farm. He feels like a grown and powerful man.
With his chores done, Jim sits down to read. He wonders if Mr. Shimerda's spirit is in the room with him, since Mr. Shimerda liked the Burdens' house so much better than his own. He knows homesickness killed Mr. Shimerda.
While Jim's grandparents are angry at Mr. Shimerda, Jim understands Mr. Shimerda's distress over missing a distant place and a lost past.
When the adults return that night, they tell Jim that a lighted lantern has been kept over Mr. Shimerda's body until the priest arrives to bless the dead.
Here light symbolizes transition. The Shimerdas hope the light will aid in Mr. Shimerda's soul ascending to heaven.