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Art by Randy Pollak
There Were Giants

Marie has to spend a dreary winter with her grandfather. Is there any point to it?  

By Roland Smith
From the March/April 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will explore what a universal theme is through reading a story about a girl who risks danger to try to rescue her injured grandfather.

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: S
DRA Level: 40
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Theme

What bonds families together across generations? As you read, think about this big question and what the story says about it.

“There were giants in those days . . .” Gramps begins.

I sigh. Not the legend again. I’m too old for this.

He continues. “A giant was out for a stroll on a moonless night and tripped over a fallen tree. He put his hand out to catch himself and left a deep impression in the soft limestone.The handprint later filled with glacial runoff from the mountain, creating these beautiful lakes.” He shows me the five spurs on his fingers as he names them. “Thumb, Index, Middle, Ring, and Little.”

Our family has lived on the Thumb for over a hundred years, mostly during the summer. But this year, I stayed on with Gramps. Gramps said he wanted to spend his final days on the Thumb. Mom decided I needed to take care of him.

I don’t think Gramps needs taking care of. I think Mom didn’t know what to do with me. She got a good job for the post office in the town of Carter, which is about 40 miles from here. She lives in a little apartment there with two other women—no room for kids. Mom comes back to the Thumb on weekends, if the weather isn’t too stormy. 

We live in a log cabin built by my great-great-grandfather. There’s a dock 50 feet from our front porch. I fish from it almost every day, keeping only what we can eat because we don’t have a refrigerator or electricity. No phone, either, except when Mom is here with her cell.

“Off the grid,” Gramps likes to say.

I am an ice queen unjustly imprisoned on a snowy lake, with no idea as to what my crime was or why I am here.

The lake ice shifts and groans like a winter ghost haunting the powdered forest surrounding it.

“Is it always like this in the winter?”

I’m sitting next to Gramps in front of the fireplace.

“Last winter was my first,” he answers. “It was not as bad as this.”

“Did the lake freeze?”

“Not all the way across. It’s always soft in the middle. Treacherous. Stay off the ice, Marie.”

He has told me this a hundred times. I love him, but he always repeats himself. I quickly change the subject so he doesn’t tell the legend of the giant again.

“We haven’t seen Mom in eight days,” I say.

“I miss her too, but she knows better than to try to get here in this weather.” There are only three full-time residents living on the Thumb, and fewer than a dozen others on the other fingers. “I doubt Lake Road has been cleared, and even if it has, I would have to plow a mile to get to it.” 

Gramps has a snowplow on the front of his four-wheel-drive truck. He hasn’t used it for three days because school has been closed. During the week, he drops me off and picks me up on Lake Road. I’m the only student who lives on the lakes—the first to be picked up, the last to be dropped off. It’s a long, lonely bus ride.

The bright morning sun bounces off the new snow, flooding my tiny log bedroom in a blinding light. As always, the room is freezing cold. As always, I pull the blanket over my head to block the light and try to fall back asleep. As always, it doesn’t work. I am wide awake. I step into my boots, drape a blanket around my shoulders, and clomp into the great room like a rumpled queen.

The great room is a living room, dining room, kitchen, and study. Every morning, I find a roaring fire in the fireplace, Gramps sitting at the kitchen table with a steaming cup of coffee, an open book in front of him, and sizzling bacon on the woodstove.

But not this morning. No Gramps at the kitchen table. No fire burning. No smell of coffee and bacon. 

I knock on his bedroom door and call out his name. No answer. I fling the door open. He isn’t in bed. He has to be outside. The light is bright, the air is bitterly cold, and it has stopped snowing. Gramps is lying facedown in the snow with firewood scattered around him. He isn’t moving. I shake him, I call his name, I feel for a pulse. He is as still as the wood he has spilled.

I roll Gramps onto my blanket and start to pull him across the powdery snow toward the cabin. I have to get him warm, thaw him out, see if he is alive. The blanket sled works well until I reach the steps leading to the porch. There are only three of them, but I might as well be climbing a mountain. I hook him under the arms, cradle his head in my lap, and pull him up the steps an inch at a time.

Gasping with frosty breath, I finally reach the porch and drag him inside. I wrap him in every blanket I can find. A half hour later, a fire blazes in the fireplace and color floods back into his gray face, but his eyes remain closed, his breathing shallow.

I hold his hand. I talk to him.

“You had an accident. I think you’ll be OK.”

The truth is I don’t think he’ll be OK. I think he’s going to die unless I get help.

“I’m going to the Bensons’ to use their phone. I’ll be right back.”

I will not be right back. If Gramps can hear me, he knows it too. Henry and Rose Benson live directly across the lake from us. Henry is a retired fireman. To reach their house, I’ll have to walk three miles along the shore in snow up to my knees, unless . . .

I look at the wall above the stone fireplace.

My great-great-grandfather’s ancient snowshoes and wooden poles have hung over the mantelpiece for nearly a hundred years. I take them down and carry them outside. The snowshoes are as long as I am tall. They are made out of curved wood and strips of woven rawhide. I buckle them on and use the poles to get to my feet. I look across the lake.    

Once a week, Henry drives his snowmobile around the lake to check on us. Last week, he drove directly across the ice. He said it was still soft in the middle, but he was able to skip over the gap by giving the snowmobile full throttle and keeping it straight. He thought it would be solid in a few more days.

It’s starting to snow again. Feels like a blizzard is coming soon. I’m not afraid of getting lost in the whiteout. If I follow the shore, I’ll be fine. What I’m afraid of is not getting help for Gramps before the weather makes it impossible for help to arrive. It will take me at least two hours to make my way around the Thumb to the Bensons’. If I walk across the lake, I’ll be there in 20 minutes—if I don’t fall through the ice.

The ice sounds like it’s cracking beneath the powdery snow. I plant the poles in front of me before every step. I want to turn back, but I don’t. There is only one way for me, and that is forward.

The wind howls, sweeping the lake to bare ice, making it easier to judge the thickness. I glide along, but this doesn’t last. The ice begins to soften. Soon I’m walking through slush up to my ankles, but I continue on, stubbornly, foolishly, holding my breath, waiting for the cold plunge, which doesn’t come. Instead, Henry Benson on his snowmobile zooms from the mist like a superhero on ice. He throttles past as if he hasn’t seen me and comes to a sliding stop 50 feet beyond where I’m standing, in shock at his sudden appearance.

“You’re five steps from death!” he shouts. “Turn around. Walk toward my headlight. Slowly. Get on solid ice.”

I tell him about Gramps as I walk.

Henry’s on his cell phone before I reach him, talking to 911, explaining the emergency. Next, he calls his wife, Rose, and tells her what’s going on.

He pockets his phone and gives me a grin. “Rose will call your mom. Hop on. Let’s go see how your grandfather is.”        

Henry kneels next to Gramps and feels for a pulse. After an eternity, he says, “He’s alive.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“He might have fallen and knocked his head. The doctors will figure it out. All I know is that you saved him by keeping him warm.”

A half hour later, I hear a helicopter. It lands on shore in front of the cabin. The EMTs run inside, lift Gramps onto a gurney, insert an IV, and wheel him outside. As they load him, I give Henry a hasty hug goodbye.

We lift off. I hold my grandfather’s cold hand. Soon I can see the sun shining on the five fingers far below.

I look down at Gramps. His eyes are open.

“Gramps,” I say. He looks at me. But he doesn’t say anything. I grip his hand harder.

“Gramps,” I say again, fighting tears. I swallow hard, wondering what to say.

“Did I ever tell you how these lakes came to be?” 

Gramps’s eyes clear a little bit. He gives my hand a squeeze. He smiles.

I take a breath and start talking.

“There were giants in those days . . .”

This article was originally published in the March/April 2020  issue.

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Activities (9)
Answer Key (1)
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Answer Key (1)
Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

By the end of the story, Marie realizes why it was important for Gramps to pass down the legend of Thumb. Encourage your students to do some digging into their own family history. They may be surprised by what they learn! This Scholastic blog post offers tips on How to Interview Your Family.

This Family Tree webpage is full of activities, games, and projects that will help your students learn about their families.

Marie was able to save Gramps because she remained calm and knew what to do in an emergency. These webpages from FEMA and Ready.gov contain tons of resources to help teach your students about emergency preparedness and staying safe.

More About the Story

Skills

Theme, vocabulary, key idea, inference, figurative language, setting, plot, character, connecting texts, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning/Purpose

The story is about a girl who risks her safety to save her grandfather. On another level, it’s about how the value of a simple thing (like a legend) can increase in value when it links you to someone you love.

Structure

The story is chronological. It’s told in the first-person voice and in the present tense.

Language

The story includes some challenging academic vocabulary, such as throttle and eternity, as well as similes and metaphors.

Knowledge Demands 

The story is set in an extremely isolated area. Some knowledge of life in such an area will be helpful but not necessary.   

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Set a Purpose for Reading (5 minutes)  

  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 11, then hold a discussion about the question it poses: “What bonds families together across generations?” Give students a chance to jot down their thoughts, possibly about their own family traditions, before sharing with the class.
  • Preview the questions in the margins of the story with students.

Vocabulary (10 minutes)

  • Distribute our vocabulary Skill Builder to preview five words. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story.
  • Vocabulary words include impression, treacherous, throttle, eternity, and gurney.

2. Close Reading

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read the story independently or listen to the audio as they follow along.

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Read the story again as a class, pausing to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Answers follow.
  • Discuss the critical-thinking questions.

Answers to Close-Reading Questions

  • Key Idea (p. 11) The legend explains how the five lakes, named for fingers, were created. Specifically, it tells how the Thumb, the place where Marie’s family has spent summers for more than 100 years, came to be.
  • Inference (p. 11) The words “his final days” tell you that Gramps is old and close to death. Gramps probably wants to stay on the Thumb because it’s a place where there are many family memories, and he can feel connected to them.
  • Metaphor (p. 12) The metaphor suggests that Marie feels resentful about having to stay on the Thumb. She feels like she is “imprisoned” there and doesn’t deserve to be in a cold, lonely place with no refrigerator or electricity.
  • Setting (p. 12) The details about setting in these paragraphs show that Marie’s life is lonely and isolated. Very few people live on the Thumb, and she and Gramps can’t get out because of the snow. Marie is the only student on the lakes, so she probably doesn’t have friends outside of school.
  • Plot (p. 12) Each of these sentences states that this morning is not like other mornings. None of the things Gramps usually does have been done, which creates the suspicion that something unexpected has happened. This alerts the reader that the action of the story is about to change.
  • Character (p. 13) Marie has rolled Gramps onto a blanket, dragged him inside, wrapped him up, and lit a fire in the fireplace. She holds his hand and talks to him. This tells you that she thinks and acts quickly. Because she loves her grandfather, she finds the strength to pull him up the porch steps and the resourcefulness to keep him warm and comforted.
  • Inference (p. 13) Marie is considering snowshoeing across the lake. Gramps has told her many times to stay off the ice, so he would probably disapprove of her doing this.
  • Character (p. 13) Marie has decided that despite the risk, she will cross the ice. In the beginning of the story, she thought that Gramps didn’t need her to take care of him, but at this point, she realizes that she must, on her own, get help for him.
  • Plot (p. 14) The author probably chose to have Henry appear to speed up the action and to make sure that Marie doesn’t fall through the ice. If Henry hadn’t shown up, there could have been a tragic ending for both Marie and Gramps.
  • Theme (p. 14) Answers will vary, but students may suggest that Marie tells Gramps the legend because she wants him to know that he has passed down a story that is important to the family. It will live on after he has died. Also, in the beginning, Marie thought she was too old for the legend, but now she realizes how meaningful it is to have learned this traditional story from Gramps; she wants to let him know she appreciates it.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • A universal theme is an important idea about life that comes up in many stories. It’s about something that can apply to everyone across different times and places, like family, love, or the power of nature. “There Were Giants” is about family. What big idea do you think the author wants you to consider? (theme) Answers may include that stories and traditions bond families together; caring for one another is passed on through the generations; families are connected through the place they’re from; older generations pass their wisdom to younger ones.
  • Read the poem “Remember,” on page 29. How does it connect to this story? (connecting texts) The poem talks about remembering where you’re from, including the family that created you and the natural world around you. In the story, Marie learns to appreciate her bond with Gramps and his connection to the Thumb. The poem also refers to the “stories,” “histories,” and “alive poems” in nature; the legend Gramps tells is a story of nature.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Theme

  • Distribute our theme Skill Builder and have students complete it as a class or in small groups. Then have them respond to the writing prompt at the bottom of page 14.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Guide students to complete a T-chart comparing Marie at the beginning of the story with Marie at the end. Ask them to think about how her attitude and her ideas about herself change. Then ask them to write one paragraph about how she changes.

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to read “The Day It Rained Cats” from our September 2016 issue. Have them discuss or write about how Marie’s and Sheera’s situations are similar and what both stories say about family.

For ELL Students

Before reading, explain that this is a story about a girl and her grandfather; invite students to share traditions they have learned from their grandparents. Then, to help them make their way through the story, summarize the first part and have them read starting at the middle of page 13.

For Independent Reading

Have students read this story on their own, either in class or for homework. They should then write a review telling whether they would recommend it to a friend and why or why not. Find a book review template in our Activity Library.