The novel is really a story of Robert Peck’s growing up. The conflict, therefore, is not so much of good vs. bad or man vs. man; instead, it is a tale of a boy’s coming into age and maturing into an early manhood.
Robert Peck, the young Shaker boy who is twelve and thirteen during the novel, is the protagonist. He must face several problems, each of which helps him to grow up.
Robert’s antagonist is life with its many challenges and accepting the responsibility it imposes. During the novel, he has several conflicts, including saving Apron (Mr. Tanner’s cow), having to kill Pinky (his pet pig), having to accept his father’s early death, and taking over the management of the farm.
There are several mini-climaxes in the book when Robert proves that he is accepting responsibility and growing up, such as the time when he risks his own life to save Apron and when he accepts that Pinky must be killed. The real climax occurs, however, when he finds his father dead in the barn and immediately assumes full responsibility of making the funeral arrangements and managing the farm. His Shaker father has prepared Robert well for manhood, which is thrust early on to the thirteen year old boy.
The plot ends as a tragic comedy. Robert proves that he can accept the responsibilities of manhood, and the reader realizes that at the young of age thirteen, he will be able to support the family and run the farm. Two tragic events help him grow up. The first is accepting the fact that Pinky, his pet, must be killed since she is barren and is needed as food for the family; Robert bravely helps his father stab the pig although it almost breaks his heart. The second event is accepting that his father is dying and then actually finding him dead in the barn; in spite of his great grief over the loss, Robert quickly accepts the responsibility of making the funeral...