Chapter Summaries

Prologue Summary

In the summer of 1953, a man working for the federal government arrives in Mars Hill, North Carolina, where the government is planning to build a lake. The government man has learned to deal with people angry over the decisions he’s been tasked with implementing, but that appears to be less of a problem in this case because there is no one to evict from the land being used for the lake.

When he asks a few locals about the cove situated on the land, an older man named Parton claims that they couldn’t bury the cove deep enough to please him. Parton won’t explain this statement beyond a vague claim that the cove is a place where bad things happen.

The man rides out to the land, parks, and walks half a mile to the abandoned farmhouse last inhabited by a man named Slidell Hampton, according to records at the local courthouse. There is also a barn and an overgrown family cemetery.

The man walks deeper into the forest until he reaches the bottom of the cove. There’s a cabin with two wells on either side, although only one of the wells still has a rope and bucket. The man considers how little the place will change once it’s underwater as it already feels dark, uninhabited, and remote. The man also thinks about how an ornithologist claimed that the area might hold the world's last Carolina Parakeets, which will probably become extinct once the lake is filled.

Hot and thirsty, the man decides to try to get some water from one of the old wells. He goes over to the well with the rope and bucket and starts to turn the crank. At first the crank won’t budge, as if the bucket is buried, but then the bucket starts to rise.

He finally raises the bucket to the surface and is surprised to find that it’s nearly two-thirds full, although the water is murky and hardly looks drinkable. He looks up at the sizeable cliff face overhanging the cove and drenching the whole area in shadows. The man imagines that once the lake is filled, the cliff will edge out from the surface like an iceberg in the ocean. He looks back at the bucket of water and sees that the water is still cloudy but has brightened enough to reveal something at the bottom of the bucket. He peers in and sees a human skull. 

Chapter 1 Summary

Around the time of World War I, Laurel Shelton, who lives in the cabin by the cove with her brother Hank, hears an interesting tune one afternoon while she is doing laundry. At first Laurel believes the sound is coming from a bird and wonders whether it could be the song of a Carolina Parakeet. Laurel thinks back to a day in school when her teacher, Miss Calicut, passed a dead Carolina Parakeet around the class, telling the students not to forget what the bird looks like because they likely would never to see one again. Laurel can’t remember whether Miss Calicut described the parakeet’s song, but she figures that the beauty of what she is hearing could match how the parakeet looked.

After washing the clothes, Laurel steps out beyond the shadow of the cliff where the sun shines brightly and lays the clothes on the warm granite ledge. Laurel loves the warmth of this spot, rare because so much of the cove and the area around it is shrouded in shadows. Hank hung a clothes line for her but she refuses to use it because clothes left here in the sun dry faster and feel cleaner than clothes that have been hanging on the line located in the shadows.

Thinking back to the song, Laurel decides to see if she can find the parakeet. She thinks back to farmers she knew who would kill the birds because they ate from apple and cherry trees. She also remembers that parakeets always travel in flocks, which would make what she is hearing unusual because she can only hear one bird.

Laurel starts to climb upward, following the sound of the bird. She doesn’t find a bird, however, but rather a ragged-looking man playing a silver flute with his eyes closed. The man does not see her, so Laurel retreats back down to the cabin. She comes back and the shirt she laid out on the ledge is nearly dry.

Carrying the wicker basket, Laurel walks into the forest to the cemetery where her parents are buried. One grave is fifteen years old and...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

One Saturday Laurel wakes up and immediately gets to work making breakfast. Hank goes off to work in the fields and Laurel steps outside the cabin, hoping to hear the flute song of the mysterious man. She reflects on the history of the cove and on why people believe it to be cursed. It is said that the Cherokee people stayed away and the first white people to live there died of smallpox. Laurel’s family has endured similar hardships: When Laurel was eight, her father collapsed from a heart condition and was bedridden for the rest of his life. After Laurel’s mother died, people began avoiding the cove completely. They even believe that the purple birthmark on Laurel’s shoulder is a sign of the curse, and the whole town scorns her and her brother.

Laurel thinks back to a night recently when she went to a monthly party in town called a victory jubilee. A boy named Jubel Parton flirted with her. They went outside and kissed but didn’t go further because Jubel said they needed a condom. At the next jubilee Jubel took her out into the woods and made love to her, but afterwards Laurel realized it was all to win a bet and that Jubel had no feelings for her at all.

Walking up the ridge, Laurel finds the stranger exactly where he was on the previous day. She watches him as he plays his flute, then follows him back to his campsite where he eats sour apples pilfered from their orchard.

Later in the day, Laurel and Hank go to town with Slidell and are treated rudely by nearly everyone they encounter. People cross the street rather than pass them. Laurel remembers being spit on in the past and pelted with rotten eggs; this happened after a girl she sat next to in school came down with polio, which the people in town blamed on Laurel. The men in town criticize Slidell for spending time with the hexed Shelton siblings. Some even say that Laurel is a witch.

Hank goes off to buy material for the well he’s digging and Laurel goes into a cloth store to shop for linens and sewing supplies. The woman in the store rudely asks Laurel not to touch anything she doesn’t plan to purchase, as if Laurel’s touch alone has the power to curse.

After paying for her sewing things, Laurel goes outside and meets Hank in the street. She says she has something to tell him, but before she can say anything, Hank walks directly to Parton’s Outdoor Goods, owned by Jubel Parton’s family. Jubel comes outside and he and Hank immediately begin to fight. The fight is broken up by Chauncey Feith, a recruiter for the U.S. military. 

Chapter 3 Summary

At a North Carolina prison camp deep in the mountains, an inmate named Walter watches as an old man on the other side of the fence leaves his boat in the river each evening after spending the day fishing. Later, around midnight, Walter fills a haversack with his most important possessions—a silver flute, a box of matches, and a medallion on a chain—and puts a note and some money in his pocket. He waits in the shadows outside the barracks until the guard on duty passes, then scales the barbed-wire fence. He goes down to the river, gets into the old man’s boat, and shoves off toward Asheville. His plan is to steal some clothes, find a train depot, and buy a ticket to New York.

Walter rows as hard as his strength allows him, stopping occasionally to rest and ride the current. At one point he falls asleep, and when he wakes up the boat has landed on the bank of the river. He rows back into the current and moves down the river, passing by buildings and houses.

He stops where there is a house with clothes on a line. He walks up the bank and takes a shirt and a pair of pants from the line. However, a dog starts barking, and a man comes out of the house and starts shooting at Walter just as he is finished changing into the clothes. Walter runs to the boat and heads down the river, but the man reappears down the river on a railroad trestle, waiting for Walter with his gun.

Desperate to escape, Walter beaches the boat on the other bank and runs into the forest. He slips in the mud going up the bank and the man appears right in front of him. Walter picks up a piece of driftwood and hits the man in the chest. The man falls down the bank into the river.

All the next day he trudges through the woods without hearing or seeing any sign of other people. Rain falls and Walter drinks a little from puddles. Although he is hungry, he doesn’t eat the mushrooms or berries he sees for fear they could be poisonous.

He follows a brook and begins to feel feverish. He finds a cabin in a cove and takes apples from the nearby orchard. He stays there for three days. On the fourth morning, he slips and falls down the ridge, where he is attacked by a swarm of yellow and black insects. 

Chapter 4 Summary

Laurel is again doing laundry, wondering whether the old flute-player in the woods has disappeared, when she suddenly discovers the man lying at the bottom of the ridge. He’s covered in yellow-jacket stings, more than Laurel has ever seen. She decides to take him back to the cabin immediately and try to save his life.

She wakes up the man, who is silent and barely able to walk. Laurel wonders if he is keeping silent because his mouth is swollen from the stings.

Approaching the cabin, Laurel runs into Hank, who has no idea what is going on. Laurel tells him only to help her take the man to the cabin, saying that he is stung nearly to death. Hank agrees but says they must bathe him first.


(The entire section is 483 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Put to bed after Laurel tended his wounds, Walter sleeps through the evening and into the next morning, when Laurel comes into his room with a cup of coffee. Walter looks more healthy as he sits up to take the coffee. Laurel tells the man she’s washed his clothes but they’re so ragged that they’re probably not worth keeping. She offers him some of her father’s old clothes, which Hank can’t wear because he’s too big.

She asks the man about the note and he nods when she asks him whether someone else wrote it for him, revealing that he cannot read or write. Hank gets a wash rag and washes off the daubs of tobacco from his body.

Laurel thinks that perhaps it isn’t smart to be in such proximity to...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Chauncey Feith, the army recruiter in Mars Hills, waits the final fifteen minutes before the recruiting office is to close for the day. Aside from breaking up the brawl between Hank Shelton and Jubel Parton, he has had an uneventful week. Recruitment has slowed in the year since America joined the war, with fewer volunteers coming forward now that the war seems all but over.

After the office closes, Chauncey walks down to the Turkey Trot Gentleman’s Club, a watering hole on the outskirts of Mars Hills run by Toby Meachum, where Chauncey wants to meet up with Boyce Clayton and ask about his nephew Paul Clayton, one of Chauncey’s former recruits recently injured in the fighting in France. Chauncey reflects on how Paul...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

While Hank and Walter work on the fence, Laurel thinks back to her time in school. The teacher, Miss Calicut, always acted generously to Laurel even though the students all scorned her. Miss Calicut complimented Laurel on her schoolwork and encouraged her to read and educate herself outside of school, even giving her a brand-new dictionary as a gift and telling the rest of the class that one day Laurel would make a tip-top school teacher herself. But once her father fell deeper into sickness, Laurel had less and less time to devote to her own education.

Laurels goes onto the porch with some beans to snap. She watches the men work and can tell that Walter has done these kinds of chores before even though he has smooth...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Thursday arrives quickly. Laurel already dreads the day when Walter will leave the farm. Hank, Walter, and Laurel relax on the porch in the evening, and Hank comments that if he had Walter for a few more months, the farm would be in tip-top shape. Laurel has learned a little about Walter in their time together—that he has two sisters, that he’s worked as a musician for five years—but she hasn’t been able to find out how he ended up in the cove.

Hank and Walter decide that they’re too tired to go over to Slidell’s. Laurel gets her old geography book so Walter can show her where he lived, and he points out the area around the town of Ithaca in upstate New York.

Then Slidell emerges riding his horse...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Accompanied by two boys, brothers named Jack and Wilber, Chauncey scours Mars Hill University for any trace of German infiltration. After talking to and intimidating a German professor, Chauncey moves on to the college library. Chauncey reflects how fearful and embarrassed the professor was after Chauncey forced him to admit that after being called down to Hot Springs to translate the letters of German prisoners of war, he returned to the camp to socialize and, as he puts it, practice his German. Chauncey is disgusted with the professor and in his mind frequently uses the epithet Huns to mean Germans.

Before entering the library, Chauncey removes his gun and holster, explaining to the boys that the presence of...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

It is Friday, Walter’s last evening at the Sheltons’ cabin as he plans to leave first thing in the morning. Laurel busies herself inside while Hank and Walter work on the fence in the field. It has been a damp day, with a dense fog covering the entire cove.

Laurel has come to dread Walter’s departure as he brought a friendly presence, however silent, that she has not experienced in a long time. Taking a jar of blackberries, cinnamon, and sugar, Laurel makes a pie and puts it in the oven. Then she brings a washtub from inside and draws herself a bath. After giving herself a good clean, she dresses in the blue-and-white gingham dress that she made for the night the previous fall when she was to meet Jubel Parton....

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Walter wakes up early on Saturday morning and makes his way to Slidell’s house. He meets Slidell on the porch and waits while Slidell gets ready. While he waits, Walter thinks back to New York and the three years he lived there before he and the other members of the crew were rounded up and sent to the prison camp in North Carolina. He thinks back to swimming in the Hudson River in the summer and ice skating at Central Park during the fall.

Because they were still getting paid, the other members of the crew had time to go to concerts and recreational events. They also played music at fundraisers and other patriotic events. Walter anticipates that it will be different in New York now, but he knows that Goritz will...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Slidell, Hank, and Laurel are on their way to Doak Ellenburg’s barn, where a jubilee is being held to raise funds and materials for the war effort. The Ellenburgs’ only son, Wesley, was the first soldier from the area killed during the war.

In the two months since Walter decided not to go to New York, he has been working hard with Hank on the farm.

As they arrive, Hank says that he wishes they could have convinced Walter to join them at the jubilee. Laurel and Slidell defend Walter’s shyness. Inside the barn are red-white-and-blue posters deploring the evil Germans. One features a blood-red handprint that reminds Laurel of Hank’s lost hand.

Slidell goes outside to drink moonshine. Laurel...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Early one Sunday morning, Hank leaves to spend the day at the Weatherbees’ home. Soon after Hank leaves, Walter comes and gets in bed with Laurel. Laurel thinks back to the previous winter, after her father died and before Hank returned from Europe, when she suffered from overwhelming loneliness. Laurel thinks she hears a voice saying her name, but she knows that it couldn’t be Walter, that it must be a dream.

When Laurel wakes up she gets dressed. As the harvest period is over, the family is making plans for the winter. Laurel wants to use the time indoors to teach Walter to read and write. She thinks she can perhaps get a reader from Miss Calicut to use as a textbook.

For the day, Laurel decides to...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Arriving at the state capitol in Raleigh, Chauncey Feith parks his Model T and makes his way to the office of Zeller, a state senator and family friend who helped secure his position in the recruitment office. He knocks on the door to Zeller’s office and is told to enter. He finds a sparsely furnished reception area populated by a pretty assistant named Beatrice Petty. He tells Miss Petty that he has an appointment with Senator Zeller and sits down to wait.

Called into the senator’s office, Chauncey is impressed by the grandness of the surroundings. Zeller mentions to Chauncey the good people of Madison County, who have been more than generous in offering their men to fight for the United States.


(The entire section is 450 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

One morning Laurel is preparing a pumpkin pie for Hank and Walter. She asks Hank to hand her the cinnamon tin, but Walter gets up and does it instead. Laurel is struck by this; she doesn’t know how Walter could have identified the cinnamon tin since the note he carries claims he is unable to read.

Suspicious and confused, Laurel walks into Mars Hill. She goes straight to the schoolhouse and waits in the hall on a bench. When the students leave, Laurel goes into the classroom of Miss Calicut, her old teacher. Miss Calicut is happy to see Laurel and mentions how smart and pretty she was a student. Laurel says she is interested in learning the meaning of a word, Vaterland, which is the word imprinted on the...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Laurel reaches the cove just before dinner. Hank is sitting on the porch with Walter, who’s playing his flute.

After supper, Laurel says she needs to go out and pick some fresh mint leaves. Walter joins her. They walk out to the creek and Laurel sets her basket on the bank while Walter crouches behind her to pick the leaves. Nervous, Laurel thinks that even if Hank hears her scream, they are far enough away that he won’t be able to get there in time.

Finally Laurel speaks. She tells Walter that she knows that the reason he pretends he cannot talk is because he’s German. Walter say that she is right but that he isn’t a German spy, only a musician.

Laurel says that she talked to a German...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

One day Hank and Walter set out to work on the new well. Hank apologizes in advance to Walter, saying that well digging is the most difficult of all farm labors and that if there’s any chore that would make Walter want to leave the cove, this is probably it.

First Hank and Walter retrieve a sledge from the barn and pull it past the cabin, through the cornfield, and into the area beneath the huge cliff face. They begin to gather flat, rounded rocks for the well’s three-foot wall.

As he works, Walter daydreams about being with Laurel the previous Sunday, the way she looks when naked. Walter finds the birthmark on Laurel’s shoulder to be beautiful, not ugly as the rest of the town sees it, and he believes...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

A few days later, Hank and Walter have dug nearly fifty feet for the well. Hank decides that it’s time to order the pulley, so he borrows Slidell’s wagon and goes into town. Laurel accompanies him because she wants to buy a new dress. As they come into town, she sees a newspaper with a headline indicating that the allies have reached an armistice with Turkey. Everyone seems to agree now that the complete end of hostilities is near. Laurel realizes that she could be leaving Mars Hill for good in less than a week.

Laurel and Hank also see Chauncey’s preparations for the grandstand and homecoming celebration in honor of Paul Clayton.

Walking to the dress store Laurel thinks about all the hurt she has felt...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

As he waits for a letter to arrive in the mail, Chauncey thinks back to a day four months earlier when he made a visit to the so-called prison camp in Hot Springs. The German prisoners were housed in a beautiful hotel called the Mountain Park Hotel, and the layout reminded Chauncey more of a church camp than a prison. He noticed the barbed wire fence would be easily scalable. One of the Germans was talking to a local woman on the other side. The Germans lounged around outside the barracks, playing cards and pinochle.

Chauncey accosted the guards on duty, saying that they were hardly doing all they could to keep the Germans from escaping or sending out spy messages. But the guards argued that these were civilian...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

It is the last day of Walter and Hank working on the well as Hank supposes that the digging will reach water soon. Riding the rope-drawn barrel down to the bottom of the well, Walter is thankful that he will soon be finished with this work; spending so much time in the deep darkness is affecting his nerves negatively.

Walter begins digging and the soil soon becomes soggy. Before long he is ankle deep in water and still digging. Around noon the water has reached his knees. When he goes back up to the surface, Hank says that he’s dug deep enough and that all he needs to do now is layer the bottom with rocks.

While eating lunch, Hank discusses the impending homecoming for Paul Clayton. Slidell has offered to...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

As Laurel prepares the food for the picnic, she thinks back to what her friend Marcie has told her about being married. According to Marcie, marriage is not all dandelions and honey. Marcie talks about getting annoyed with her husband over small things, such as the way he eats or tracks in mud, and the brief spats in which they frequently engage. But in the end Marcie says she’s glad to be married, that the metaphor of being “hitched” is an appropriate one because not only are you attached irrevocably to your spouse, you also have someone to share the load of the work.

Laurel thinks she agrees with what Marcie says. She realizes that every day with Walter will not be a dream come true, but she is still grateful to...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

The day for Paul Clayton’s homecoming celebration finally has arrived. Chauncey Feith wakes up after a night during which he could hardly sleep because of his excitement about the festivities. He looks over the speech he plans to give and makes some last-minute changes. He stands in front of the mirror and dresses, making sure his uniform looks as neat as possible.

Looking outside, Chauncey is grateful for the bright sunshine; the weather is nearly the only part of the planning he can’t control. He also is grateful for the one other issue he can’t control, the status of the war. It seems that the war could end any day now, but he is glad that it hasn’t ended before the celebration for Paul Clayton.


(The entire section is 420 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary

On the day of the celebration, the Sheltons do not go into town. While Hank stays at the cabin, Laurel and Walter walk to the top of the cliff face to have their picnic. Laurel is wearing the new dress she bought for New York, and Walter is struck by how beautiful she looks.

As they walk through the woods, Laurel asks Walter if New York is near the ocean. He says that it is, which delights Laurel because she wants to be able to look at something that has no ending.

They get to the outcrop of rock warmed by the sun and put down the quilt. They lay on the quilt, eat, and drink Laurel’s muscadine wine. Laurel reviews the facts she has memorized about Walter’s life, where he grew up and went to school, the...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Chapter 24 Summary

Led by Chauncey Feith, the posse makes its descent into the cove. As they enter the area darkened by the huge cliff, the men become quieter. They ride up to the cabin. Hank is sitting on the porch, but it does not appear to Chauncey that Hank is holding his shotgun.

Chauncey asks Hank the whereabouts of the spy he’s hiding, but Hank says that he doesn’t know what Chauncey’s talking about. Chauncey orders the men to tie up Hank and scour the cabin and the barn for Walter. Ansel goes inside to get one of Walter’s shirts to bait the dog. Jubel goes to the well and ties a noose to the scaffolding.

Linville appears with the dogs. The dogs sniff Walter’s shirt, run around the area a few times, then catch...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Chapter 25 Summary

Walter stays at the outcrop, site of the picnic, until dusk, then goes to his old campsite on the ridge. He buries himself beneath a bunch of leaves and hides there till morning. He waits there all day, then in the evening ventures just far enough to find some apples to eat.

Two days later Walter wakes to gunshots ringing out in the distance. Walter doesn’t know what the gunshots mean, but he runs down the ridge away from them. When he gets to the cabin, he sees blood all over the porch. He walks up to Slidell’s house and sees two new graves in the cemetery.

He decides to proceed into Mars Hill. He feels lightheaded from hunger, exhausted, ready to confront whatever is waiting for him. As he passes the...

(The entire section is 440 words.)