Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1223
Chapters One through Five
Isabel Pacay, the oldest of four children, is a teenage girl taking care of the family because her mother, Manuela, is very ill. She realizes that "by being the first, she was now the last,’’ because she must now put everyone else's needs before her own. One morning her father leaves without breakfast, and Isabel follows him under the guise of going to get the water. She watches him as he sacrifices a chicken to both the native and Christian gods, while praying specifically for Isabel. She returns home and prepares breakfast. After the younger children leave for school, Isabel's mother goes to the altar and performs the healing rituals as instructed by Eziquel Coxol, the town healer. Isabel worries that her mother will never get better, and that she will be forever stuck as the woman of the house. Her dream is to become a teacher, and even though she knows it seems impossible, she is unwilling to give up hope.
When Manuela has another attack, Isabel heads into town to find Eziquel. There she finds many of the villagers gathered around an American imploring the mayor to allow him to do his medical work in their village. Because of the hostile political climate, however, the natives are suspicious of strangers. Isabel, who loves learning, is intrigued by this man who has come from so far away. As the crowd breaks up, Isabel sees her fiancé, Lucas. He is distant and cold to her, leaving her confused as she goes to find Eziquel. Isabel returns home with the healer, and for the first time, Manuela admits how sick she is. When Isabel's father, Alfredo, comes home, the family talks about the strange American. After dinner, Alfredo drinks his rum and tells stories to the children.
The next day, Isabel talks to her best friend, Teresa, about Lucas' strange behavior. Teresa and Lucas were engaged; he broke off the engagement because he was in love with Isabel. Isabel marvels at how Teresa is able to remain friends with her. Teresa agrees to talk to Lucas about his aloof manner.
Chapters Six through Ten
The American approaches Isabel. Nobody will talk to him, and he hopes Isabel will be different. She learns that his name is Allan Waters and that he is a medical student working on an illustrated book of symptoms that will allow patients to communicate with doctors who do not speak their languages. Isabel talks to him briefly, until Manuela calls her away.
On her way into town, Isabel encounters Lucas, and their exchange is cold and formal. When Isabel returns home, she finds many of the women in the village talking to Manuela about Isabel's indiscretion in talking to the American. That night, Alfredo warns her about the dangers of trusting strangers and about the importance of resisting change. Isabel disagrees. Their discussion is interrupted by the sound of a rock hitting the house. When they investigate, they find a red candle in a circle of pine with a burnt tuft of hair. It is a bad sign, and Alfredo remains watchful all night.
One day, Isabel wanders off by herself, and as she is crouched in a group of rocks in a cave, she sees a small group of guerrillas butcher a local man's steer. She is terrified and stays completely still, but one of the men sees her. He looks right at her but does nothing. After they leave, Isabel stays still for a while longer before going back home.
On Sunday, everyone gathers for Mass, and Isabel goes to confession before the service. She admits to feeling resentful at being forced to stay home and take care of the house instead of going to school as she would prefer. The priest assures her that her feelings are normal and tells her that she has committed no sin.
The whole village turns out for a celebration of the newly installed waterline that will give the village a constant and reliable source of water. The festival includes music and a soccer game in which Lucas, one of Isabel's brothers, and many of the other boys will play. Isabel's family leaves the house to go to the festival, and Manuela sees how badly Isabel wants to go. In a tender moment, she insists that her daughter go. During the soccer game, Lucas makes an incredible but dangerous play, and Isabel rushes out to him. Without thinking about the fact that they are in front of the whole town, they kiss. Isabel's father takes her by the arm and escorts her home.
Chapters Eleven through Fifteen
As Manuela's condition worsens, Isabel grieves the loss of the person her mother once was. She was so vibrant and full of life, and now she can barely walk by herself. Isabel suggests to Eziquel that they should take Manuela to Sololá to the Western hospital. He considers it. Alfredo tells Eziquel of the red candle and the other signs that have been left at their house. Isabel's brother runs in to tell them that the army is in town with another proclamation, and the children go to hear it. Isabel recognizes one of the military men as the guerrilla who saw her when she was hiding in the rocks. She wonders why the same man would be on both "sides," and what it could mean.
Alfredo, Isabel, Allan, and Isabel's siblings all accompany Manuela on her trip to the hospital. It is a trip that takes most of the day, and they see strange people along the way. In the hospital, the doctor conducts a basic examination but wants to draw blood and take X-rays to confirm his diagnosis. Manuela refuses, and Allan persuades the doctor to give him the medication for her anyway. Allan asks Isabel to meet him at the soccer field the next day.
When Isabel meets Allan, Lucas sees them together, and his jealousies mount. He wants to fight Allan, but Isabel stops him. Lucas storms away, leaving Isabel emotionally wrecked as Allan explains to her how to use the medication for her mother. Feeling alone, Isabel visits her wise teacher for advice. He tells her how much teaching means to him and that she must find a way to pursue her dream. She feels lost, and he tells her that it is important that she ask herself what it is she really wants and not be afraid of the answer. Later that day, Manuela has another attack, and Isabel encourages Alfredo and Eziquel to use the Western medicine. They agree. While they take care of Manuela, Isabel goes to find Lucas. They talk, and she discovers that Teresa has been telling Lucas lies, exploiting his insecurities and jealousies about the American. Teresa has told Lucas that Isabel does not want to marry him, and Isabel comes to realize why Lucas has been so cold. She also concludes that Teresa is the one responsible for all the bad signs at the house. Isabel tells Lucas that she wants to marry him, but that she also wants to be a teacher. She only asks that he promise that they will try to find a way for her to be both wife and teacher. He cannot see a way, but he agrees they will try. She is thrilled.
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