CivilWarLand in Bad Decline “Isabelle” Summary
by George Saunders

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“Isabelle” Summary

As the story begins, the unnamed narrator and his brother, Leo, are standing on cinder blocks and peeping into the window of a man they call “Split Lip” as he bathes his disabled daughter, whom they call “Boneless.” Split Lip is a cop who is deeply devoted to his daughter and greatly invested in her care, and the narrator recalls this scene as “the first great act of love [he] ever witnessed.”

When race riots break out the following summer, the narrator and Leo witness Split Lip in an act of a very different sort. Out fishing one day, they see Split Lip and another officer lead two Black boys to the lagoon. Hiding in the reeds, they watch as Split Lip drowns the older boy. The boy’s younger brother Norris, a mild-mannered classmate of the narrator’s, watches in horror. Split Lip warns Norris that if he tells anyone, there will be consequences.

The narrator and Leo run home in tears, and their parents order them to keep quiet and try to forget. Norris struggles to recover, slowly descending into alcoholism. One day, he tells the brothers he can’t take it anymore. “I’ll sneak in there this morning and wait all day for him to come home,” he says, showing them a gun. “Nine o'clock tonight he dies.”

The brothers return to Split Lip’s house and climb back on the cinder blocks to watch through the window. Before long, Norris emerges from the closet brandishing the gun. “Who will care for my child?” Split Lip begs. After a pause, Norris shoots himself in the head.

Traumatized, the two brothers run away. They struggle to process what they’ve witnessed, and in Leo’s case the trauma derails him: after his mother is attacked, he joins the Nazis and begins to engage in racialized violence. After one especially violent incident, his father tells him he’d better join the military—it’s either that or jail.

After the shooting, Boneless develops a debilitating fear of being alone. At the behest of his father, an old school friend of Split Lip’s, the narrator begins caring for her while Split Lip is at work. They become close, and the narrator teaches Boneless to type in order to communicate.

As his brother is becoming more and more compassionate through his friendship with Boneless, Leo is becoming harder and more abrasive. He returns home from the military with a bag of human ears, unable to understand his brother’s new friendship.

Eventually, Split Lip dies in his sleep, and Boneless is moved to a state home. One Thanksgiving, when the family is visiting her at the facility, Leo tells Boneless everything about her father. A family fight ensues, and Leo argues that he’s in the right. “Lies serve nothing,” he insists. “The truth serves God.”

Boneless begins to reach out to the family less and less and soon requests that the narrator stop visiting altogether. Months pass, and the narrator grows increasingly disconsolate and lonely without her companionship. Eventually, he visits Boneless one last time, and despite the complexity of their relationship, she is glad to see him. Animated by each other’s company, he buys a place of his own and moves her out of the facility. “It's not perfect,” he muses, “sometimes it's...

(The entire section is 834 words.)