Chapters 1–3 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on March 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1381
The story opens in November of 1843 in the Worthen household. Lyddie is thirteen, Charlie ten, Rachel six, and Agnes four. They live with their mother on a small farm in Vermont. As Lyddie is stirring a pot of oatmeal one day, she looks up to see a black bear standing in the doorway. As calmly as she can, she tells her mother and siblings to go up into the loft. Lyddie stares straight at the bear as she waits for her family to climb up and then backs up the ladder herself. Charlie drags the ladder up after her just in time.
The frustrated bear reaches for the family in the loft but cannot get to them, and although Lyddie is worried, she tries to comfort her family. The bear knocks around the cabin, and Lyddie prays he will not break anything, because they cannot afford replacements. Eventually, the bear sticks his head into the oatmeal pot, gets stuck, and stumbles out the door with the pot on his head. Lyddie and her siblings begin to laugh, but their mother cries and says that the bear’s arrival is a sign of the end of the world, just as Lyddie’s aunt Clarissa says. Right then, their mother makes the decision that the family will go to her sister’s farm the next day, because their father is never coming back.
Lyddie and Charlie clean up the bear’s mess as their mother sits in a daze. Lyddie hopes that the idea of leaving will pass by the next day, but it does not. The next day, Charlie takes his mother and two small sisters away, but Lyddie stays on the farm. She will not go to their neighbor, Quaker Stevens, for help, even though she and Charles have brought their cow to mate with Stevens’s bull.
When Charlie returns, the two siblings get by as well as they can on the farm, and they rejoice in the birth of a little calf. In May, a letter arrives from their mother telling them that she has hired out Charlie to the local mill and Lyddie to Cutler’s Tavern and has rented out the farm, horse, and cow to repay their father’s debts. Charlie makes a joke about their mother’s spelling, for she writes “we can stil hop” instead of “we can still hope,” and Lyddie laughs along, but her laughter is tinged with sorrow.
Lyddie decides that the calf rightfully belongs to her and Charlie and that they should sell it and keep the money for when their father returns. Charlie hesitates at first but then agrees, and the siblings consider themselves a “good team.” They clean the cabin and secure it the best they can, reflecting on how their father tried to build a farm but encountered bad luck at every turn. They also recall their love for him and his love for them. Then they leave the cabin and start towards Quaker Stevens’s farm, enjoying the spring scenery. Lyddie promises Charlie that they will return.
Quaker Stevens is rich in Lyddie’s eyes and owns a prosperous farm. Lyddie is envious but tries to suppress the feeling. She explains her family’s situation and bargains with Quaker Stevens regarding the sale of the calf. He offers a good price and then invites the children to join in the family’s noon meal. He then suggests that his son Luke drive them into the village. Lyddie feels shy around Luke and remembers when she used to see him at school. She also hopes that Charlie might be able to continue his schooling, even though she most likely will not. Luke and Charlie talk along the way, and Luke offers to check on the cabin. Lyddie is again hesitant to accept help, but Charlie accepts Luke’s offer.
After delivering the horse and cow to Mr. Westcott, the man renting the farm, Luke and Lyddie leave Charlie at the mill. Charlie, trying to comfort his sister, tells Lyddie not to worry, and Lyddie is not sure whether to laugh or cry. As Luke drops Lyddie off in front of Cutler’s Tavern, he again assures her that he will see to the cabin and look in on Charlie. Then Lyddie finds herself “alone in her new life.”
At first, Lyddie merely stands looking at the tavern and its setting, and she reflects that when she goes inside the gate, she will no longer be free. She will be a servant, and she feels angry at her mother for hiring her out. She is shaken out of her reverie by the arrival of a stagecoach and marvels at the finery of its passengers. One of the women smiles at Lyddie.
The tavern’s mistress mistakes Lyddie, with her ragged dress and dirty bare feet, for a vagrant and tries to order her away from her “respectable tavern.” Lyddie suppresses her anger and introduces herself. The mistress, looking horrified, tells her to go inside and clean up, and Triphena, the busy cook, orders her to sit down and stay out of the way. Lyddie marvels at the huge kitchen and the mechanized spit over the fire, and she has a strong desire to prove herself through her hard work. Lyddie also reflects on how much she wishes she were a boy so she could have helped her father more instead of taking care of her mother, her siblings, and the cabin.
Mistress Cutler provides Lyddie with clothing and boots, and Lyddie begins her work, determined to give the mistress no reason to complain. She sleeps in a tiny, stuffy passage without windows. She misses Charlie intensely and keeps mostly to herself, occasionally counting the money she received from the sale of the calf for comfort.
In late August, Lyddie meets the young woman who smiled at her when she first arrived at the tavern. The woman says that she is a factory girl in Lowell, Massachusetts, and she tells Lyddie that she would do well in the mill, where she could make two dollars per week and be independent. Hearing this account, Lyddie is sure the woman is lying, but she wonders how a farmer’s daughter could wear a silk dress.
Katherine Paterson begins her novel Lyddie with a humorous incident that serves to draw readers into the story, introduce the characters and their personalities, and establish the novel’s first setting. When a bear appears at the door of the Worthen family’s cabin, thirteen-year-old Lyddie shows how practical, capable, and courageous she is. She takes full charge of the situation, quietly but firmly guiding her family’s actions so as not to frighten them while at the same time staring down the bear. She puts herself in harm’s way and does not retreat to safety until she is sure her mother and siblings are in the loft.
Through Lyddie’s words and actions, readers understand immediately who is the leader in this family. Her mother can do no more than whimper and obey when the bear appears at the door. She is not capable of clear, calm action. She even screams as the bear reaches up for the loft, and Lyddie has to quiet her, speaking to her as if she were a child and comforting her with soft words.
When the bear finally stumbles back outside, Lyddie and her siblings start to laugh. Their laughter is the result of their pent up nerves and fear, and Lyddie, again with a maturity beyond her years, turns the incident into a joke on herself, wryly noting, “Lucky I'm so ugly. A pretty girl couldn’t a scared that old rascal!” Her siblings laugh even harder, laughing away the horror, but their mother does not join in. Her shoulders shake, and although Lyddie prays she is laughing, too, she knows her mother is actually crying, unable to cope with the stress and sure now that the world will end. The family’s humor dies away as Mrs. Worthen proclaims that they must leave the farm. Her reaction proves to be a turning point in the novel, because she sends her family down a new road from which there is no turning back.