The first five chapters introduce themes that are carried throughout the book. Themes such as love and belonging, importance of a mother, sense of identity/self, and racism are prevalent throughout the novel. The first five chapters focus on Lily’s life at home with T. Ray, in an abusive and emotionally neglectful household. T. Ray punishes Lily by making her kneel on grits, which cut into her knees, but mostly, it is his lack of affection that hurts her most:
It was the sorrow for the sound of his fork scraping the plate, the way it swelled in the distance between us, how I was not even in the room (pg 22).
Lily is motherless, having lost her mother at a young age in an accident with a handgun. Lily remembers holding the gun as a toddler, and it going off. She believes that she was responsible for her mother’s death, and her death left behind such a huge gaping hole in Lily’s life, saying,
“This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away” (pg 8).
Lily is also discovering herself throughout the novel. In the first five chapters, Lily is lost. She doesn’t know who she is or who she wants to be, she only knows that she yearns for her mother and is scared of her father. Lily doesn’t know how she feels about herself, she says, “I loved myself and I hated myself” (71).
There is also the prevailing theme of racism, as evidenced by the scene in the town of Sylvan. Lily and Rosaleen are accosted by white men giving Rosaleen a hard time by insulting her and harassing her for wanting to register to vote. This results in Rosaleen’s arrest after she pours her snuff juice on the men’s shoes. Lily herself is racist, without even meaning to be. Rosaleen calls her on it, saying,
“…I’m supposed to follow you like a pet dog. You act like you’re my keeper. Like I’m some dumb n****r you gonna save” (53).
Lily at times acts superior to Rosaleen, bossing her around and taking charge, even though Rosaleen is the adult.