Chapter 1 Summary
In 1941, a ninety-one-year-old man named the Captain rides home through a timber forest on his horse. Five to ten feet of snow covers the forest floor, and the horse riding is treacherous. He’s bundled up against the harsh weather and has covered his face in petroleum jelly to protect against the wind. The journey home takes a day and a half, and the Captain rides through the night because he knows that if he stops, he could freeze to death.
Waiting for the Captain at home are Clemmie, his youngest daughter, and his grandson Henry. Over the years, the Captain has had three wives and many children, and he believes Clemmie is the one who understands him best.
Clemmie tells the Captain that she has decided to leave, telling him that she can’t wait for him to die. The Captain takes her news with resignation and offers to escort Clemmie and Henry down the mountain.
Going down the mountain, the Captain asks Clemmie whether she has ever been to the city, her current destination, and she says that she has not. Before making a treacherous crossing of a river called Twelve Mile, Henry and Clemmie say goodbye to the Captain.
In the city, Clemmie finds a job at a veteran’s hospital. She and Henry move into a small house with a kitchen. Clemmie finds it difficult to adjust to the new lifestyle—having to pay for things such as water, food, and heat—but she perseveres. She goes to night school and becomes a nurse. On Saturdays, she takes Henry to the public library to look at the books.
When they learn of Clemmie’s new life, relatives begin to pass through and visit. These are the many children of the Captain, such as Uncle Golden and Aunt Adelita. Uncle Golden stops by whenever he is flush with money, and Aunt Adelita stays with them after her husband and two sons die in a mine explosion. Eventually they learn that Uncle Golden died after a highway standoff, having shot himself in his own car.
Henry has never met his father, but he meets men from his father’s family and learns that they are all strong and highly spirited, often subject to rash fits of anger. The men in his family have traveled fear and wide, participating as laborers in some of the great public works projects of the era, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Boulder Dam, and the Holland Tunnel.