Summary of Chapter II
These incidents start one summer when Mrs. Forrester was still a young woman, and Sweet Water was expected to be a great town. While she is arranging roses in a bowl, she sees a group of boys coming to her door with fishing-poles asking to fish in her marsh land. She agrees and then asks Mary, the cook, to make the boys some cookies. They eat their lunch in the cottonwood grove, as Mrs. Forrester in a white dress brings them cookies. She tells the boys she sometimes wades in the marsh. They are feeling very happy that she brought the cookies herself. She is “a very special kind of person” like royalty (p. 21).
The boys lie in the grass and talk about who poisoned Judge Pommeroy’s spaniel. As they speak of him, he shows up: Ivy Peters or “Poison Ivy,” an arrogant and uncouth teenager. He is carrying a gun. One of the boys tells him Mrs. Forrester doesn’t want hunting on the land. Ivy claims he is as good as she is and will do as he likes. He has a face as red as if stung by bees, and he has poisoned other dogs. In fact, he shows his cruelty to the boys by shooting a woodpecker with a sling-shot and then slitting its eyes so it can’t see. The boys watch the woodpecker, now blind, fly against the tree. Niel Herbert, one of the boys, decides to climb the tree and kill the poor bird to put it out of its misery. He falls from the tree and breaks his arm. The boys carry Niel to the house and ask Mrs. Forrester’s help. Ivy bursts into the house, determined to make himself at home, though the other boys stay on the porch in respect. Mrs. Forrester sends Ivy away and phones for the doctor, giving Niel some brandy.
Niel looks wonderingly at the grand house, darkened and quiet. It is so unlike the noise of his house. He feels luxurious in the room, the nicest he has ever seen. Dr. Dennison sets the arm and takes Niel home in his buggy. Niel is Judge Pommeroy’s nephew, but his father is a poor widower with his Cousin Sadie as their sloppy housekeeper. Niel is ashamed of home and identifies rather with his prosperous uncle, the Judge, who is the Forresters’ lawyer and friend.
Commentary on Chapter II
Here is a seminal scene on the Forrester land. The animals and vegetation are protected and appreciated for their beauty. The boys are enjoying an idyllic boyhood summer picnic, and the satanic “Poison Ivy” shows up. He is older and has a gun, and he murders dogs. To impress the boys, he tortures a woodpecker. The narrator says that these are hearty boys and not squeamish, for one is the butcher’s boy, and the others kill game to sell, but they are upset by this meanness.
Niel is so upset, he risks his own neck to put the bird out of misery. A major enmity is revealed in this chapter. The judge’s nephew, twelve-year-old Niel Herbert, a favorite with Mrs. Forrester, cannot stand Ivy Peters and his cruel ways. They hate each other from boyhood.
Even in this group of boys, there are two classes represented. Niel and George Adams are from gentlemen’s families, and their behavior is more refined. The other boys are rougher but good natured: the butcher’s son, the grocer’s twins, Ed Elliot, whose father owns the shoe store, and the tailor’s son. Ivy Peters is also from the lower class but has ambitions of power, and even in this scene tries to assert that power over the Forresters. This is an omen of future conflict.
The other thing of note in this chapter is the way the boys regard Mrs. Forrester. They know she is of a different class, and they get George to speak properly to her. She is kind to them and knows how to put them at ease, and yet they do not try to act familiar, except for Ivy. They are in awe that she knows how to swim when most women do not. This fact, and the image of her pulling off her stockings to wade in the marsh reveal that though she is a lady, she has an unconventional, adventurous, and even sensuous side.
Finally, we come to the character of Niel, who is the narrative sensibility of the story. We see everything through his eyes, and his impressions were Cather’s as she grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, the prototype for Sweet Water. Even as a twelve-year-old boy, he is sensitive to suffering and injustice and tries to help the woodpecker. He is also awed by the Forrester house, its grandness, its quiet and dignity, so unlike his own motherless home. He regards Mrs. Forrester as a beautiful lady of a higher order of beings. Though Niel’s father is poor, his own mother came from the Pommeroys, a good family, and he identifies with gentility, not only in lifestyle, but in sensibility.