Chapter 1: 1919 Summary

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On the third day of every year, Shadrack, a twenty-two-year-old Black veteran of World War One, celebrates National Suicide Day. He established the holiday in 1917 as a means of coping with the horror and absurdity he witnessed during the war and has continued the practice even after returning home. For a long time, he was alone in his perverse celebration of death, but after some time, residents of the Bottom began to join him, seeing the day as a means of honoring their suffering and acknowledging their lives. 

In December 1917, Shadrack and his fellow soldiers became engaged with enemy forces in France. On the battlefield, Shadrack witnessed the death of his close friend; overwhelmed by the sight before him, Shadrack underwent a mental break, awakening days later in a hospital bed with no memory of how he got there. In the hospital, Shadrack was plagued by hallucinations and terrible thoughts, which occasionally led him to become aggressive. However, after two years, he was released from the hospital with only 217 dollars, his personal documents, and a complete set of clothing to his name. 

Outside of the hospital, Shadrack suffered from shell shock—what would today be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His delusions persisted, and he acted erratically. When the police arrested him for being a drunken vagrant, he felt an awful sense of relief.

After the police officers reviewed Shadrack's hospital discharge papers, they transported him back to the Bottom on the back of a truck. For twelve days, Shadrack struggled to make sense of his thoughts but seemed incapable of finding order amidst the chaos of his mind. 

On January 3, 1920, Shadrack walked down Carpenter's Road carrying a cowbell and a hangman's rope. The townspeople were cautious and confused but listened to Shadrack's message; he argued that National Suicide Day is a once-a-year opportunity for the residents of the Bottom to take their own lives and eschew the suffering of everyday life. Over time, Shadrack’s perverse, annual holiday became a community tradition.

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Chapter 2: 1920 Summary