An unnamed narrator describes a large farm near Cabot Street Road. The narrator has grown up on this farm, and has always thought that its land is perfectly flat, desolate, and lonely. She once had neighbors, the Ericsons. The Ericson family had two daughters, about the narrator’s age. The narrator also has a sister, Rose. Her other neighbors are the Clarks, who have two sons, Loren and Jess. The narrator’s father is friends with Harold Clark, Loren and Jess’s father.
The first thing to notice in the novel is the place; an area of America so remote that it almost seems like another planet. In spite of the vast plains and big farms, the world feels “smaller” here—the characters all know one another closely, as a byproduct of living in the same tiny community.
The narrator gives more background information about her life and experience. She lives in Zebulon County, Iowa, a place where “acreage and financing” are essential parts of life—as essential as one’s name or gender. From a very early age the narrator is conscious of the differences between her family’s wealth and that of her friends. When she played with Ruthie Ericson, the Ericsons’ young child, for instance, she noticed that the Ericsons’ property is technically on Harold Clark’s territory, meaning that it should be Clark’s. She also felt a strong sense that all of the land in the area—“a thousand acres,” she claims—should belong to her family alone. The narrator first felt this way in 1951, when she was eight years old. This was also the year that the narrator’s younger sister Caroline was born.
Zebulon County is the setting of the novel, and it’s a place where land is an essential part of life. Another important detail to pick up in this passage is the desire for more that dominates the narrator’s worldview, even when she’s a young girl. As a child, the narrator (later revealed to be Ginny Cook) thinks that her family should own everything around her. Since the impulse to own is coming from a child, it seems relatively innocent. But as we’ll see, it develops into a deep-seeded greed that will eventually prove to be her downfall.
As a young child, the narrator and Rose used to take rides with their father in his new car. These rides stopped abruptly when Caroline was born. The narrator always savored her memories of the car rides: her mother and father would talk, in a calm, reassuring tone, about the state of the farm. Life, the narrator concludes, “seemed secure and good.”
The chapter ends on an ambiguous note: Smiley seems to be writing about an idyllic, all-American family, with the father taking his kids and wife around for “Sunday drives,” and the family’s land proving fertile and secure. Yet the birth of Ginny’s little sister, Caroline (the favorite child) seems to drive a wedge between the Ginny, Rose, and their father, and foreshadows trouble to come.