Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 994
This one paragraph summarizes one of Susie Salmon's memories of time spent with her father: him turning a snow globe that had a penguin in it.
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Though readers don't know it on first reading, as the novel progresses this image becomes a metaphor for Susie's life: her world is turned upside down by forces larger than herself, and she is trapped in a perfect world (heaven), but still upset.
Susie Salmon is narrating the story of her own murder from beyond the grave. She was killed on December 6, 1973, by a neighbor named Mr. Harvey. Mr. Harvey rapes and kills Susie after luring her to a secret hiding place—an underground shelter he built in a cornfield.
The first lines establish the premise for the entire novel, and make a direct claim for the importance of an individual life: this is going to be an anti-mystery. The question is not going to be who killed Susie Salmon, or why, but the opposite. The Lovely Bones explains the emotional implications of this single act of violence, and it starts by giving voice to the one person usually left out of mysteries, the victim.
Susie enters heaven. At first she thinks that everyone sees the same heaven, but after a few days she learns that everyone's heaven is different. Everyone sees what they need to see. Susie meets her roommate Holly on the third day in heaven. Susie has an "intake counselor" and guide to heaven named Franny. Franny guides the girls as they get used to heaven, which expands and changes as they explore it.
Back on Earth, her father gets a phone call on December 9 telling him that a body part has been found. When the police search the cornfield, they find a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Len Fenerman, the officer in charge shows it to the neighbors. One neighbor, Mrs. Stead, recognizes it as a book the students in ninth grade were reading, which indicates the elbow that was found was probably Susie's. The police investigate a boy named Ray Singh, who had written a love note to Susie, but find him innocent. Eventually, the police find Susie's pompom, which convinces them Susie is dead. The confirmation shatters the Salmon family emotionally.
The description of heaven is very modern, very personal, and very psychological. It implies that the afterlife is so vast and so specific that it is different for everyone, that heaven changes over time, and that the needs of every individual human matter. This is very different from the heaven imagined in many religions, but very merciful and comforting, especially for someone who was killed without any mercy.
When Susie's soul left her body, it brushed Ruth Connors, giving her a vision. Ruth becomes obsessed with Susie, collecting pictures of her. Ruth also steals some pot and tries it, to deal with her new sense of reality.
Susie watches Ruth from heaven, and is comforted by Franny. She also watches her family, seeing her sister Lindsay touch her (Susie's) clothes, her father smash the ships in bottles they built together, and her brother sleep. As she watches, Susie remembers the first photos she took of her family.
The Lovely Bones opened with a brief story about Susie's father's explanation of the perfection found within snow globes. Ships in a bottle are very like the penguin in snow globes; they are contained examples of perfect worlds, completely under their makers' control. Jack Salmon smashes the ships he built with Susie, acting out the way in which the perfect little family life he'd built was smashed by an outside hand.
Susie watches her killer, Mr. Harvey, moving back in time to review how he filled in the hole in the cornfield, and forward in time to preview how the next owners will see but not recognize the bloodstain in the garage. Susie watches Mr. Harvey remember his pleasures, and get rid of her remains by dumping them in a sinkhole that serves the town as a dump, throwing one stray silver charm bracelet in a lake.
Susie's father sees Mr. Harvey building a ceremonial tent in his backyard. He helps Mr. Harvey, and intuits that Harvey knows something about Susie's death. He asks Mr. Harvey, but Harvey says that he can't help him.
Mr. Salmon helps Mr. Harvey build a tent in much the same way that Susie helped Mr. Salmon. In that way, they are alike, and Mr. Harvey indicates that because they have built something physical together, they have built something emotional together. It should render him free of suspicion. It does not, and in fact, Mr. Salmon sees something in Mr. Harvey that makes him suspect him all the more. This shows an immediate intuition working beyond the surface details, much like Susie's observation from heaven does, but impotently and frustratingly.
Susie wishes her father would turn violent and seek vengeance for her that way. Instead, he becomes guilt-ridden and quietly obsessed. He tells the police that he suspects Mr. Harvey. Len Fenerman visits Mr. Harvey and finds him strange, but he doesn't find any reason to suspect him.
At Christmas, the Salmon family tries to be happy, but isn't succeeding until Samuel Heckler comes over to visit Lindsey and give her a gift. While he is giving Lindsey her gift—a necklace with half a heart on it—Mr. Salmon explains to Buckley that Susie is dead. Samuel kisses Lindsey.
Here the two potential roads to creating moral and emotional balance in the world are laid out in stark contrast. There is the road of violence and vengeance. It should be a road of justice, but the police won't help, and Mr. Salmon doesn't have it in him naturally. The other road is the road of love. Even though Samuel Heckler follows a clichéd path with the necklace, it works.