”Redemption” is set in a small farming community in upstate New York. The story opens abruptly with John (Champlin) Gardner, Jr. the announcement that, ”Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David.” Jack was driving a tractor and towing a cultipacker when his brother fell off the large machine. Jack is unable to act quickly enough to stop the accident, and David is crushed by the large machine.
The accident affects each member of the family in different ways, and the rest of the story is about how the family, especially Jack, finally come to terms with the death. Jack’s father, Dale, takes the death very hard. A kind and genial man, Dale often recited poetry to groups at local churches and schools. After the accident, Dale begins to engage in a series of self-destructive actions, including riding his motorcycle at high speeds, smoking cigarettes, and engaging in a series of affairs with women. He vacillates between a hatred for God and despairing atheism.
Jack’s mother, Betty, hides her grief from her children, crying only when she is alone. She concentrates on getting her two children through their grief. A religious woman, she has many friends who provide her with support. During this period, she also requires that her children take music lessons— Phoebe on the piano, and Jack on the French horn.
Although many people reach out to Jack, he withdraws from human contact. He isolates himself from family and friends, and even considers suicide. During the long hours he spends alone, the accident replays over and over again in his mind. He finds some solace doing his farm chores. One day, a year and a half after the accident, his sister brings him his lunch out in the field. When he did not say grace, she is distraught. Jack comforts her by lying, contending that he had said grace to himself earlier. This moment is an important one for the story, because for the first time since the accident, Jack shows concern for someone other than himself.
Meanwhile, Jack’s father returns after three weeks away. When Jack comes into the house, he finds his father crying, asking his wife for forgiveness. Although Jack hugs his father, he is angry and resentful, presumably because after running away from his responsibilities to the family, his father can find solace when he returns.
Jack’s father never leaves the family again. Jack, on the other hand, remains isolated, retreating into music. On Saturdays, he takes the bus to Rochester to take music lessons from an elderly Russian musician, Arcady Yegudkin, who had narrowly escaped the horrors of the Russian Revolution.
During one of Jack’s lessons, Yegudkin plays a French horn, and Jack is transfixed. When he asks his teacher if he thinks that he will ever be able to play that well, Yegudkin laughs, clearly amazed that Jack would even think that such a thing were possible. Although Yegudkin’s laughter moves Jack to tears, there is no indication that Jack will not continue with his lessons. Further, Yegudkin’s response somehow provides a release for Jack, an acknowledgment that he does not have to be perfect. The story closes with Jack rushing for his bus, starting for home. The implication is that, like his father before him, Jack is starting the long journey toward healing.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, John Gardner, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.