Chapter 1 Summary

The narrator, a young woman named Ruth, recounts the family history which led to her living with her sister, Lucille, under the care of her Aunt Sylvie. Ruth and Lucille’s family hailed from a Midwestern town named Fingerbone, adjacent to a lake of considerable size. Their grandfather, Edmund, was an employee of the railroad who married Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother. Edmund worked his way up in the railroad industry over the years until his untimely death in a rail accident. One evening, the locomotive on which Edmund was working had slipped off of the tracks on the bridge crossing over the giant lake near Fingerbone. The accident happened in the middle of the night, so no one was quite sure where in the wintry lake the train had landed. Two men standing at the back of the train had escaped with their lives, but the rest went under the water with the train and never came out. That night and the following morning, numerous efforts were made by divers to rescue people from the train, but only a few odd pieces of debris turned up.

Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother raised her three teenage daughters (including the girls’ mother, Helen) for the next five years. Once Helen and her sisters came of age, they left the homestead. One sister, Molly, became a missionary and left for San Francisco; Helen eloped with a man named Reginald (Ruth and Lucille’s father), much to her mother’s chagrin; Sylvie also married, but did so at home in Fingerbone. Ruth has almost no memory of her father; she relies on a few photographs her mother has. While Helen worked, a neighbor named Bernice often looked after Ruth and Lucille. One week, Helen borrows Lucille’s car and drives the girls to Fingerbone. Knowing her mother will not be at home, Lucille leaves the girls and their luggage on their grandmother’s porch, along with some snacks to eat. Helen then drives away to a cliff overlooking the lake; she drives off the cliff into the lake, leaving her daughters in the care of their grandmother.

Their grandmother (who, like their aunt, was also named Sylvia) dutifully cared for the girls, even though she seemed all too aware of the fact that she had been down the road of motherhood before, and her offspring had abandoned her. In consideration of her advanced years, Sylvia talked with her granddaughters about what would become of the m when she passed away. Sylvia intended for her two younger sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, to come and live in her house to watch after the girls.