Chapters 1-2 Summary

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Chapter 1

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook is roused abruptly by her mother on the morning of August 16, 1793. The weather is stifling and a mosquito buzzes annoyingly around her head as she sluggishly responds to her parent's nagging. Polly, the serving girl who helps at the coffeehouse downstairs, is late and there is work to be done. As Mattie dresses, Silas, the family cat, pounces on a mouse and the girl, shooing the angry feline away, retrieves the rodent, now deceased. As she leans out the window which overlooks the teeming Philadelphia street below to dispose of the dead rodent, Mattie hears the sound of the blacksmith's hammer on his anvil and conjectures that Polly is probably late because she has stopped to visit with Matthew, the blacksmith's son.

Mattie herself does not like the blacksmith's shop, with its "roaring furnace [and] sparks crackling in the air." She prefers the waterfront which lies to the east; on a clear day, she can see the masts of the ships tied up at the wharves on the Delaware River from her window. A few blocks south of that lies the Walnut Street Prison; it was there where the French aeronaut Jean Pierre Blanchard had recently launched the first hot-air balloon flown in the United States. Mattie yearns to one day break free of the ties that bind her to her tawdry life, just like that "remarkable balloon" that had risen from the prison courtyard, escaping the confines of earth.

Chapter 2

The Cook Coffeehouse had been built by Mattie's father soon after the American War for Independence ended in 1783. The bustling establishment is located in the center of the city, near the corner of Seventh and High Streets, two blocks from the home of President Washington. Mattie's father, a carpenter by trade, had fallen from a ladder and died only two months after the coffehouse had opened. Mattie's paternal grandfather had subsequently moved in, and the three of them—Mother, Grandfather, and Mattie—had continued running the business, whose clientele is made up for the most part by "gentlemen, merchants, and politicians enjoying a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, and the news of the day."

In addition to Polly, the coffeehouse employs Eliza, the cook. Eliza had been born a slave in Virginia, but her husband had saved up his money and bought her freedom soon after they had been married. In turn, Eliza had been saving the wages she earned in Philadelphia to set her husband free, but before she had been able to secure enough, her husband was killed by a runaway horse. Although the shock of the tragedy had rendered the woman silent for months, "the smile slowly returned to Eliza's face," unlike Mother, who had "turn[ed] sour" after her own husband's death.

Eliza is Mattie's "best friend." When Mattie comes down to the kitchen, the congenial woman slips her a bowl of oatmeal sweetened with a lump of sugar before her mother, who is "in a lather," puts her to work. Eliza wonders if Polly, who is not usually prone to tardiness, might be ill, but Mother, who storms in at that moment, snaps snobbishly, "Serving girls don't get sick." Grandfather, who had gone to get a box of tea, is absent also. Mattie, anxious to get out, says she will go search for him. Mother impatiently declines the offer, declaring that she will go herself, and sends her daughter to tend the garden instead.

The garden, which measures fifty paces by twenty, must be watered by hand, since the city has been afflicted by six weeks of drought. As she laboriously draws water from the well and pours it over the withered plants, Mattie dreams of the day when she will be able to pursue a life of her own. She plans to travel to Paris and bring back "fabric and combs and jewelry that the ladies of Philadelphia [will] swoon over," and to own "an entire city block," which will house a dry goods store, a "proper restaurant," an apothecary, and maybe even a school. Impressed with her lofty ambitions, Grandfather good-naturedly calls Mattie "a Daughter of Liberty, a real American girl."

When Mother returns from her errand, she is uncharacteristically subdued. In answer to Mattie's question about Polly's whereabouts, she replies softly:

"I spoke with her mother...it happened quickly. Polly sewed by candlelight after dinner...then she collapsed...Matilda, Polly's dead." 

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Chapters 3-4 Summary