A Day No Pigs Would Die begins with a boy cutting school. His name is Robert Peck, though the book does not name him until Chapter 2. He is walking home thinking about how much he would like to fight another boy in his class named Edward Thatcher. During recess, Edward had pointed at Robert's clothes and laughed at them. Instead of fighting, Robert had run off, and the novel joins him here. Edward Thatcher particularly offended Robert because by making fun of his clothes, Edward was also making fun of Robert's "Shaker ways." Robert imagines fighting Edward and making him, "bleed like a stuck pig," so that he will, "never show his face in the town of Learning ever again."
Suddenly, Robert is interrupted from his thought by a painful sound. He turns and finds Apron, a Holstein cow belonging to his neighbor, Mr. Tanner in some sort of trouble. Running toward the cow, Robert discovers the reason for the bawling that he heard from the road. Apron is crazed with the pains of trying to give birth. The calf is half out, and Apron is covered in blood and gore. The calf bawls, and Apron takes off running through the puckerbush with Robert close behind. He gets a hold of it, but the calf is so slippery that he falls and on the way down, gets a sharp kick in the shin from the fleeing Apron. Down, and in pain, Robert decides that he will not give up this time, and when he hears the calf bawl again, he remembers running away from Edward Thatcher. He resumes the pursuit, but this time he has a plan. Taking off his pants and braving the prickly bushes, he catches up to Apron and knots a pant leg around the calf's head. He tries pulling the calf out again, but Apron takes off again and drags him through another patch of thorn bushes. Finally Apron stops, and Robert ties his other pant leg around a tree. Thinking he has won, Robert waits for Apron to take off again and rip the calf out by means of her own running, but she does not cooperate. Hearing the calf bleat again, Robert begins beating and cursing Apron in every imaginable way. He hits her with a tree branch, stones her, and finally, with a kick in the udder, he gets her to move. The plan works, and the calf is pulled right out, all over Robert. He goes down under the weight of the calf and the slop, and when he can finally open his eyes, Apron is standing directly over him, alternately licking him and the calf.
All is not well, however, as Apron begins gasping for air and half falls on top of Robert and stops breathing. Thinking that Apron is probably choking on something, Robert shoves his hand way down her throat and finds a hard ball. He tries to rip it out, but Apron bites him and then gets up and begins running again. Robert is dragged by the arm under the constant assault of Apron's front hoofs and finally passes out.
Robert's ordeal with Apron the cow immediately brings the story of A Day No Pigs Would Die into focus. We are immediately thrust behind the eyes of a boy whose name we do not even know and are forced to go with him on a ride that ends in unconsciousness. The ordeal introduces the way of life that characterizes the events of the remainder of the book, a life that is, in a word, hard. Nothing comes easy to Robert in this first chapter, and it is a trend that will continue.
Isolation is an important element to the story of A Day No Pigs Would Die. It pervades throughout the entire book but is especially evident in the first chapter. By the second paragraph of the book, when Edward Thatcher makes fun of Robert's clothes in school, it becomes obvious that Robert is an outsider. He is different from the other kids at school because he is a Shaker and doesn't own nice clothes. The imagery of the first chapter, or rather the lack of it, also serves to help create the feeling of isolation. There is the dusty country road, the dry brush, some dead trees, and nothing else.
The author uses rhetorical strategies to accomplish quite a bit in A Day No Pigs Would Die. The very first sentence, "I should of been in school that April day," introduces a warm, simple, colloquial tongue that tells readers as much about Robert as his actions do. The grammar is incorrect in an intentional way. From this alone, Robert's age, grade in school, and level of literacy can be roughly ascertained. The Shaker Creed tells us that he who wishes to live well should, "Let your thoughts be rational, solid, godly. Let your conversation be little, useful, true," and that sentiment can be felt in Robert's inner dialogue of short, strong sentences. Religion is also evident in Robert's actions, as he allows himself to be humbled by Edward Thatcher but goes to great lengths trying to help his neighbor's cow.
It is also important to note that the story begins with Robert running away from a fight and ends with him fighting bravely. He runs away from Edward Thatcher despite his desire to defend his way of life but then he nearly dies to save the life of a cow and her half born calf. This can be seen as Robert's first step toward adulthood. Never again do we see Robert regretting something that he does not do throughout the rest of the book. Though the cow ordeal nearly kills Robert, he continues to act on impulse, even though the results are often harsh. He perseveres over the situation with Apron by using his mind and sacrificing his body.