Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1025
1969: The primary setting is established in the prologue, which begins by differentiating between a swamp and a marsh. While a marsh is full of life, such as moving rivers and long-legged birds, a swamp is still and dark. Swamps “[know] all about death” with their constant decomposition of organic matter, and it is in the swamp that the body of Chase Andrews is found.
Chapter 1: Ma
1952: Kya Clark, the youngest of five children, watches her mother walk away from their family one morning. Although her mother has left them before, she has always returned. Before leaving, she had been too quiet at breakfast, her “smile lost.” A bruise had spilled out of a scarf tied around her forehead. When she walks away from the house in her fake alligator skin heels and carrying her blue train case, she doesn’t turn back to wave to Kya. The two oldest sisters cook a meager supper and Kya maintains watch for Ma from their doorstep. The next day, Kya’s brother Jodie, the next youngest and seven years older than her, occupies Kya by playing “’splorers” and allowing Kya to be captain. Jodie wants to take his sister’s mind off Ma but cannot find adequate words. Kya resumes her post, but her mother doesn’t return the next day, either.
Chapter 2: Jodie
1952: Kya’s three oldest siblings drift away from the house and don’t return. Soon, only Jodie and Kya are left. After Pa hits Jodie in the face, Jodie tells Kya that he can’t live there anymore and gives her some basic survival instructions before leaving her alone with Pa. That night, Kya goes to sleep completely alone in the house for the first time in her life. Pa doesn’t return for three days, so Kya tries to manage cooking for herself. On the fourth day, Pa comes home drunk, and later Kya finds him tossing her mother’s belongings, including her precious art, into a fire. She stops him before he destroys everything and then learns to avoid him in order to survive. The next morning, Pa tosses Kya a dollar and some loose coins and tells her that she’s in charge of cooking and housework. Kya walks through mud and deep sand for four miles to reach the grocery store but doesn’t know how to count money. While in town, she hears a woman yelling at a young Chase Andrews; the woman also casually refers to Kya as “marsh trash.” Kya doesn’t know the date of her birth but decides to celebrate her seventh birthday that autumn evening. She dresses up for the occasion in anticipation of her mother’s return, but she spends the evening surrounded only by gulls.
Chapter 3: Chase
1969: Two ten-year-old boys, Benji Mason and Steve Long, are exploring the abandoned fire tower when they spot a person lying in the mud below. They call out to him and then notice that his left leg is turned at an unnatural angle and his mouth and eyes are wide open. They recognize the body as Chase Andrews and decide to quickly get the sheriff, who accompanies them back to the scene with Dr. Vern Murphy. The men confirm the identity of the body. They begin to speculate about how Chase has died and why he hasn’t left any footprints in the mud around the fire tower.
Chapter 4: School
1952: A truancy officer comes to collect Kya and take her to school for the first time ever, convincing her to attend by telling Kya about the free meal she will receive there. Kya puts on the only jumper she owns, held together by a safety pin, and enters the school barefoot. Her teacher immediately embarrasses Kya by asking her to spell dog, which Kya spells backward to the great amusement of her class. By lunchtime, even a free hot meal isn’t enticing, and Kya can barely swallow; she is utterly ostracized by every other student. She returns home, sobbing in the company of her gulls. The school sends a truancy officer periodically for a few weeks, and then Kya is left alone, never returning to school for another day in her life. Instead, she passionately explores, fascinated by shells and herons. During one of these expeditions, she steps on a rusty nail. Terrified of lockjaw and with no one to help her, Kya successfully treats her own injury.
Chapter 5: Investigation
1969: Dr. Murphy is dispatched to inform Chase’s parents of his death, and the sheriff summons Deputy Joe Purdue to help investigate the scene. The men cannot find any footsteps leading to the tower or any attempt to cover them up. They discover that an iron grate has been left open, speculating that someone opened it before Chase arrived in order to push him through it. They discover that a support beam has suffered some damage and speculate that Chase hit his head on it during his fall. Joe reminds Ed that Chase had quite a reputation for “Tom-cattin’” with women and could have made someone’s husband angry. They also speculate that he could have run up debt he couldn’t pay with an “out-of-towner.”
Chapter 6: A Boat and a Boy
1952: Pa dresses up, tells Kya he’s going to be gone for a few days to check on some additional disability funds from the army, and walks down the same path the rest of Kya’s family took as they abandoned her. She utilizes this opportunity to take the skiff out and explore. Being inexperienced in navigating the water, she loses her way but stumbles upon a former friend of Jodie’s, who helps her find her way home. He knows her name and tells her that his is Tate; she feels grounded in his presence. Tate heads home to his father and dinner. At home, photos remind Tate of his mother and sister who are dead, and he feels that “if not for him, they’d be here.” Scupper, his father, shares a favorite poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee, telling Tate that it was one of his mother’s favorites.