Chapter 1 Summary
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588
Ten-year-old Jesse Aarons rises early every morning in the summer, sliding out of bed as soon as he hears his father leave for work. Moving quietly so as not to wake his mother and sisters, he goes down to the cow field to run, challenging himself to improve in speed and endurance. Jesse is determined to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade by the time school starts again in the fall. At Lark Creek Elementary, where he goes to school, the younger boys—those in the third, fourth, and fifth grades—have informal running competitions during their recess periods, as the school's few athletic supplies are taken up by the older children. One time last year, Jesse had won “not just the first heat but the whole shebang” although he was only a fourth grader. This year, the usual winner, Wayne Pettis, will be in the sixth grade and will no longer participate in the races, so Jesse has a good chance of being “the fastest kid in the third, fourth, and fifth grades.”
Jesse has straw-colored hair and a wiry build; he is the only boy in the family, “smashed between four sisters.” His older siblings, Ellie and Brenda, who are teenagers, tend to be self-centered and mean and essentially despise him, while the baby, Joyce Ann, just gets on his nerves. In contrast, May Belle, who is seven, pretty much worships Jesse, which Jesse thinks is “OK sometimes.” Jesse's mom is a harried woman, overwhelmed with the responsibilities of the farm and the children, and Jesse's dad, who drives all the way into Washington D.C. every day to work, is always tired and does not have time to spend with Jesse like he used to. One of the reasons Jesse is so intent on being the fastest runner in his class is that he wants to make his father proud.
Jesse's running is interrupted when May Belle calls him to come in for breakfast. He goes back to the house and into the kitchen, where he tiredly plunks himself down at the table. Ellie and Brenda immediately start complaining that he smells, and Momma makes him go to the sink and wash. When Momma says that she has “plenty of chores” that need to be done that morning, the older girls whine and complain, telling her that a neighbor, Mrs. Timmons, is coming by to take them shopping. Ellie, the smarter and more manipulative of the two girls, reminds Momma that Daddy has promised them five dollars to spend for school things. Too exasperated to argue, Momma gives them “five wrinkled bills” from her battered purse but holds firm when the girls try to talk her into a dollar more. The Timmonses arrive to pick up Ellie and Brenda, leaving Jess to do the work that needs to be done—“as usual.” Momma scolds Jesse for not being quick enough and sends him off to milk the cow and pick the beans.
While Jesse is picking beans, May Belle comes down to tell him that new people are moving into the old Perkins farm, which adjoins the Aarons's property. Jesse looks over in that direction. Noticing a large U-Haul truck parked by the door of the house, he thinks, “These people [have] a lot of junk.” Distracted by the flies, which are buzzing annoyingly around his face and shoulders, he forgets about what is happening at the Perkins farm and sends May Belle down the row of bean plants to get his shirt.