The author begins the book by describing the setting of the story, outlining immediately the conditions which lie behind the primary conflicts which form the basis of the narrative. Poverty is a predominant theme, as is isolation and a society in which racism is prevalent.
From the second sentence in Chapter 1, the author communicates the desolate poverty in which the family lives by describing the sagging roof of the cabin. At least six people live in the tiny, shabby dwelling with "loose windowpanes"; a father, a mother, the narrator, and three younger children. It is winter, and "the hunting is getting worse and worse"; the family is "hungry for solid food...corn mush (has) to take the place of stewed possum, dumplings, and potatoes". The author conveys a sense of the desperation with which the parents try to keep the family fed. The father is preoccupied with hunting, but with little success, and the mother picks walnut kernels, trying to gather at least two pounds a night, for which the man at the store will pay thirty cents "if they're mostly half-kernels and dry".
The family's cabin is located in an isolated area, and "the closeness of (their)...(lonely)...world" is defined in the night as "the place where the lamp light end(s), at the edge of the cabin walls". In an indication of the racist social structure that exists at the time, the author notes that "the whilte man who own(s) the vast endless fields (has) scattered the cabins of his Negro sharecroppers far apart, like flyspecks on a whitewashed ceiling". Neighbors are distant, and the school is "far away at the edge of town". The young narrator has attempted to go to school for "two successive Octobers", but is as yet too small to have been able to handle "walking the eight miles morning and evening...when cold winds and winter sickness (comes)" (Chapter 1).