Last Updated on April 28, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048
Every day, Makepeace takes her guns and patrols the city, a city now quiet and empty. She remembers podding beans in the summer and hunting with her father in the winter when she was young. There was a school and a library then, and a meeting house for worship, which has now been broken up for firewood.
Makepeace and her brother, Charlo, grew up in the house where Makepeace still lives. Makepeace has thought about burning the old pianola for firewood but cannot bring herself to do so. She hopes to one day come across a book with instructions for tuning it.
One day, Makepeace accidentally shot a young Chinese boy when trying to stop him throwing books into the street to be burned. She then picked up the boy and tried to take care of him, but they spoke no common language. Makepeace kept the books.
Whenever she used a bullet, Makepeace would make herself five more. She did this, then went to check on the boy, now feverish. The boy survived the night and ate the food he was given. The next day he emerged to see Makepeace feeding her mare, which he called "Ma." The boy explained that his name was Ping.
Ping was the first person who had been in the house since Charlo, ten years earlier. Makepeace left for her patrol and was surprised to come back to find Ping still there, sticking needles into his ears and nose, a form of acupuncture to help his wound.
When Ping's arm healed, he began to get up very early and dance what he called "gong foo" in the courtyard. Ping's presence made Makepeace contemplate traveling to trade with caribou herders, as it meant the house would not be empty. She could take a sled and bring back frozen meat on it. She explained to Ping what she was planning and showed Ping how to use the rifle.
Makepeace's experience is that hungry men become immediately angry and violent. She ate as much as she could before leaving on this trip, and as the marks of civilization disappeared, she shot some partridges to eat. As she traveled, she wondered why she still patroled when she was no longer paid to do so, then realized it was part of a desire to keep the old world alive.
She traveled for five days to the mountains. The caribou herders lived a simple life that had barely changed. When Makepeace arrived at the settlement, where the herders lived in huts, a Tungus man hailed her and gave her some fried meat. Makepeace slept for a night, then initiated her trade: whiskey for meat. The herders butchered four caribou and loaded them on Makepeace's sled.
One night on her way back, Makepeace woke to find that one of the herders, Gustav, had followed her and stolen her weapons while she slept. Makepeace tracked Gustav to his tent and set it alight. Gustav left his tent and Makepeace found him the next morning, frozen to death. She retrieved her guns.
Makepeace cried a little over the herder. She fights the "womanish" elements of her nature, but they are still there, even though she is tall and passes for a man. Her journey home was slower because of the extra weight, and Ping was delighted to see her return. They hung out the meat, and then Makepeace lit a fire and warmed the bathhouse.
When Ping came into the bathhouse in a dressing gown, he looked astonished at the sight of Makepeace nude, having thought she was a man. Ping then removed her own dressing gown to reveal that she, too, was a woman and was several months pregnant. Ping began to cry, and Makepeace held her to comfort her. They were both a little relieved by the revelation.
Makepeace decided to try cultivating more land and planting packet seeds so that there would be more food in the summer, once Ping's baby was born. The city looked even emptier than it had before, and Makepeace wondered whether she and Ping were the only people left. She began walking around the city on foot, feeling closer to it than she had of late. Nature had begun to reclaim things; wild pigs were wandering the streets, and Makepeace killed some to eat.
Ping and Makepeace had begun to be able to talk to each other, teaching each other words. By April, the baby could be felt in Ping's stomach. Ping let her hair grow, and Makepeace planted beans, corn, spinach, tomatoes, and flowers.
In late April, Makepeace saw some men on horseback moving a group of chained prisoners down the highway. She rode out to meet them and asked what they were trading. The traders didn't answer directly but said they had lost a girl around here in January. Makepeace denied having seen a girl, and the group walked on. Makepeace wondered who they all were and what the world beyond the city was now like.
Theroux sets the scene for his novel in a way which carefully avoids, until chapter 3, revealing that the main character, Makepeace, is female. This poses an ideological challenge to the reader: why, as readers, might we assume that Makepeace is a man, simply because the character is able to shoot a gun and takes it upon herself to patrol and protect her city? Theroux suggests that gender is, in many ways, immaterial in this world, placing no constraints on a person's capacity for survival, but in other ways it is very important. For example, Makepeace survives largely because she is able to pass as a man. Other women, although there are few, survive by prostituting themselves, while Ping is gratified to discover Makepeace's true sex because she has evidently been misused by men in the past. At the same time, she has sought, like Makepeace, to present herself as male for her own protection, even while her pregnant body is on the cusp of betraying her secret. Ping can only fight against this for so long.
At the end of this section, Makepeace comes across a band of enslaved people traveling from the world beyond the city, which causes her, along with the reader, to wonder how life is progressing elsewhere.
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