Hagar and Doris make a series of trips to the local hospital so that Hagar can have her X-rays taken. Doris is often fidgety and impatient during the many hours of waiting around, setting Hagar on edge and causing her to fidget, too. On the day of Hagar’s stomach X-ray, she is forced to drink a chalky white substance known as barium, which allows the stomach to be seen more clearly on the scan. The drink nearly makes Hagar sick, but a nurse warns her that if she can’t keep it down, she’ll just have to start the process all over again. Hagar defiantly downs the barium, but admits to the nurse that it doesn’t “matter much what’s wrong” with her stomach—she is, after all, over ninety.
Hagar’s medical visits hammer home the lack of agency she has over her own body. Whatever is going inside of it is beyond her control to begin with, but the miserable and disgusting barium swallow serves to symbolize just how little choice Hagar has in the way her body is attended to.
As Hagar waits for the X-ray to start, she’s reminded of other times in her life when she’s “waited like this, for things to get better or worse.” Most of her time at the Shipley place, as she calls it, was just waiting for “something else” to happen. Hagar’s days were filled with nonstop work, often incessant cleaning, and as soon as the children were old enough, she trained them to help out around the house and do their chores. Bram, on the other hand, was often lazy, and only ever really worked hard during the harvest.
Hagar’s frustration over her present lack of agency triggers a remembrance of another such time—the early days of her marriage to Bram, during which she found herself subjected to labor and wifely duties she did not want to be responsible for.
Hagar often found herself disgusted by Bram and his friends, and when Bram was once yelled at by a mounted police officer for publicly urinating on the steps of the Currie general store, she and Bram fought terribly. The years “were scoured away like sandbanks under the spate of [their] wrangle and bicker,” and yet still, Hagar nursed a strong attraction to her husband even as their marriage crumbled.
Every small choice Hagar makes—and her ultimate, overarching choice not just to marry Bram but to stay with him in the face of his crass cruelty—adds up over the years, leading both her and Bram down a path that makes them all but unrecognizable to one another, and to themselves.
After the doctor’s report reaches Marvin and Doris days later, they are “secretive about it” and tell her only that the doctor has recommended “professional care”—in other words, the nursing home. Hagar demands to know what Doris and Marvin are keeping from her, but Marvin says Hagar’s just “getting on” in age. Hagar is unconvinced by Marvin’s words, and feels threatened, anxious, and suspicious. Doris tries to open up the conversation about Silverthreads again, but when Hagar protests, Marvin suggests they all “stow” the matter—the exasperated man is “caught between two fires.”
Marvin is clearly struggling with what to do about Hagar. He knows that she needs more specialized care—and possibly even knows something about her health she doesn’t—but is torn between appeasing his wife and keeping his mother from descending into greater fear and depression.
Doris calls Mr. Troy once again, knowing their family is in need of advice. He comes to talk with Hagar in the garden, and urges her to “accept the things which [she] can’t change.” Hagar insists that she can’t leave her things behind, and Mr. Troy suggests she pray for clarity and to ease her mind. Hagar retorts that prayers have never done her any good. Mr. Troy asks Hagar if she believes in “God’s infinite mercy,” but Hagar replies that God has never been “merciful” towards her—she lost a son. Mr. Troy continues to prod Hagar about her life and her faith, but she clams up and eventually he leaves, halfheartedly assuring Hagar that “things will work out.”
Hagar’s second meeting with Mr. Troy is more confrontational than the last, and yet even when up against the old woman’s cynicism, Mr. Troy continues trying to help and soothe her—to a certain point. Hagar, however, proves inconsolable and unreachable, isolated in her pain, misery, and anger.
Hagar looks back on her memories of her son John. Bringing him into the world was easy, and she labored for fewer than six hours. He was born with bright eyes and thick black hair, and Hagar thought from the moment she saw him that he was more like her than Bram. John was not as big as Marvin as he grew, but nor was he delicate. Hagar loved John best, and was always worried for his well-being, though he was a healthy boy. John and Marvin often argued and squabbled, but Hagar tried her best to teach the boys to be civil and speak eloquently—unlike their father. Hagar found herself telling John stories of her father’s family, the Highlanders, and even entrusting him with a family heirloom: a silver pin.
This passage begins to explain Hagar’s enduring love for her son John over the love she has for Marvin. Though the details of her relationships with both boys have not yet been made fully clear, it’s evident that Marvin is giving up much of his life and his own happiness to help Hagar, yet remains overlooked and insignificant compared to his dead brother. This detour into memory shows that John was always favored, for reasons Hagar herself has trouble articulating.
Bram took to Marvin, but never to John—even when he tried to be kind towards John, there was an “edge to it.” Once, Hagar watched as Bram offered John a comb of fresh-cut honey, balanced on the edge of a knife “that in another season slit the pigs’ carcasses.”
This scene shows how even in moments of tranquility and sweetness, there was always an impression of darkness and an unsavory underside to life in the Shipley home.
Wanting some money of her own, Hagar took a tip from Bram’s daughter Jessica and began selling hen eggs to make some cash on the side. Bram “never said a word” about the endeavor, and Hagar is unsure to this day whether he ever even knew about it. Hagar hated chickens, and wouldn’t even eat them, but used the extra money she earned from their eggs to purchase a gramophone and other things for the house.
The desperate Hagar wound up taking on extra work in order to provide extra things for herself and her children, because her lazy husband’s meager income did not provide enough for them.
As John grew older, he grew wilder and more defiant—he swore, fought at school, and hung out with a group of equally wild boys, the Tonerres, sons of Jules Tonerre—a boy who’d been Matt’s friend growing up. John and his friends often dared one another to walk across a trestle bridge where the trains came through, a mile from town—one time Hagar caught them, and yelled at John, embarrassing him in front of his friends. Even though John was angry with Hagar on the way home, she could sense a kind of relief in his face.
In spite of John’s bad behavior, he remained Hagar’s favorite all through his youth. This scene foreshadows a love of risk and danger that will ultimately plague John throughout his life, and even have a hand in his death.
At seventeen, Marvin joined the army and went off to fight in the first World War. After the fighting was over, he never returned to Manawaka, and wrote home only occasionally. Even after Marvin left home, Bram still didn’t pay any more attention to John, who, at seven, couldn’t help Bram with the kind of tough chores that Marvin could. One evening, John confided in Hagar that the kids at his school called Bram “Bramble Shitley.” John laughed at the joke, but then immediately began crying, and ran upstairs to be alone in his room.
Marvin, feeling unwanted and out of place in Manawaka, struck out on his own for good at just seventeen. John, meanwhile, continued feeling stifled in his own home and outcast in the community despite his mother’s favor. Bram’s disrepute and embarrassing ways began to affect not just Hagar’s position in town, but John’s as well.
One Saturday, John and Hagar went to town so that she could deliver eggs. When Hagar knocked on the door of a house, a little girl with ringleted hair and beautiful clothes answered the door, greeted John by name, and then called for her mother, shouting that “the egg woman” had come. When the girl’s mother came to the door, Hagar saw that it was Lottie Drieser, now married to Telford Simmons. After the awkward exchange, Hagar and John walked away, and John told her that Telford was now the bank manager—he and Lottie have a lot of money. When Hagar then began talking about how Telford was always homely and stupid, John yelled at her to shut up.
Confronted with the awkward situation of having to deliver eggs to someone who had once been her friend and equal—but was now socially and financially superior to her—Hagar felt ashamed, and it’s clear her son did too. What’s more, Lottie once warned Hagar about what it would mean to get involve with Bram. The headstrong Hagar ignored her, and now lives in squalor and desperation while her friend enjoys comfort and luxury.
Hagar, embarrassed, quickly ducked away from John and into a public restroom. In the empty facility, Hagar found “what [she] needed”—a mirror—and stopped to look at herself, “wondering how a person could change so much and never see it.” As Hagar examined herself, she saw herself for the first time for what she had become: an overweight, gray-haired, leather-faced woman dressed in ragged men’s clothing. The only thing she recognized about herself were her eyes, but even those appeared “distant.”
This scene is a pivotal one in the novel. In it, Hagar comes to realize that the choices she has made have changed her not just on the inside, but on the outside as well. She hardly recognizes herself anymore, and feels disconnected from the woman she once was and the woman she wanted to be.
After exiting the restroom, Hagar paid her first visit in many years to her father’s old general store in hopes of buying some new clothes that would “render [her] decent.” Inside, she flagged down a manager and asked for credit, hoping that her status as the former owner’s daughter would help her chances of receiving special treatment. The manager walked off to check on whether he could meet her request—and then Hagar heard Bram, on the other end of the store, trying to buy stale doughnuts at a discounted price along with some lemon extract. Hagar overheard the clerks discussing how Bram only wanted the extract so he could sell it back to local Indians for three times the price. Hagar walked firmly through the store towards Bram and then dragged him out into the street—“that was the last time” they ever walked anywhere together.
Hagar, reeling from what she has just seen in the bathroom mirror, goes into the general store in hopes of beginning to repair her image and shattered identity. Instead she encounters her husband, who is continuing to chip away not just at his own reputation but her own, taking advantage of his wife’s tenuous connections to her past and her family.
Hagar returned home and gathered up her most valuable things—heirloom earrings, sterling silver candleholders, and fine china—and took them into town to sell to Lottie Drieser. She used the cash she got from the transaction to leave Manawaka on a trip, refusing to look back.
Reclaiming her agency requires giving up parts of her past even further, but at this point, Hagar is completely desperate to try and salvage what is left of her life and her control over her own circumstances.
Doris shakes Hagar from her memories. Hagar is confused as to what time it is, and asks if it’s morning, but Doris tells her it’s nearly dinnertime. After dinner, Hagar goes along with Doris on a walk to the corner store. While paying for their ginger ale, Hagar sees a young woman in front of them paying for a loaf of bread. The young woman’s nails are painted black, and Hagar loudly remarks on the polish, asking what the girl’s mother must think of her daughter’s choices. Doris quickly tries to hush Hagar up, begging her to be quiet “just for once,” and Hagar quickly grows embarrassed. Back at home, as soon as they walk in the door, Marvin—who has been pacing the living-room “like a bear in some zoo pit,” announces that Hagar will be going away to live in the nursing home a week from today.
Though Hagar remembers acutely the embarrassment and shame she felt at her own husband’s outbursts, crude speech, and bad behavior, it is almost as if she cannot control herself in her old age. A lifetime with Bram has clearly rubbed off on her, and she is continuing to alienate Marvin and Doris—her only family and source of support—as she also embarrasses herself and the family even further.