Jess Aarons wakes up early to the sound of his father leaving the house for work in his noisy pickup truck. Jess slides out of bed and pulls on a pair of overalls, then begins tiptoeing from the room. His younger sister, May Belle, sits up and excitedly asks Jess if he’s going out for a run. Their youngest sibling, Joyce Ann, is still asleep in the bed she and May Belle share. Jess has been getting up every morning all summer to practice running in the fields beyond their home—he is determined to be the fastest in the fifth grade at the start of the new school year. Jess confirms to May Belle that he’s going to run. He knows she “worship[s]” him—she is the only one of his three sisters who is nice to him.
Small context clues in the first passages of the novel establish several important facts about Jess (and foreshadow major themes that will come to play throughout the book). Jess is surrounded by girls, but seemingly disconnected from his father, who leaves the house at the crack of dawn each day. Jess is a hard worker who wants to prove himself to his classmates at school—he cares a lot about the approval of others.
The August morning is unseasonably cold. Jess climbs over the backyard fence and into the cow field beyond, where the family’s cow, Miss Bessie, is grazing at the patchy grass. Jess crouches low and takes off across the field. He doesn’t have great form as a runner, but he has a lot of “grit” for a ten-year-old. At Jess’s school, which is underfunded and low on gym equipment, the lower-school boys have started running races at recess to pass the time. Jess won one of the races last year, and he hopes that if he wins more this year, he’ll lose his reputation as the “crazy little kid that draws all the time.” The former fastest runner in the lower school, Wayne Pettis, is going into sixth grade and Jess wants to make sure that he himself takes the crown.
Running is a masculine activity for Jess, and a way for him to prove to the other boys in his class that he fits in. This passage also shows that Jess “draws all the time” but is embarrassed by his private hobby and wants to prove himself capable of a more traditional, acceptable activity.
Jess envisions himself winning as he races across the field. He knows that becoming the fastest runner in the fifth grade will make him a star at school—and might also make his reticent, overworked father proud. In the middle of his reverie, Jess hears May Belle calling for him because it is time for breakfast. Jess races back home and sits down at the table, where he older sisters Brenda and Ellie complain about his sweaty stink and beg their mother to force Jess to wash up. While eating, Mrs. Aarons tells her children that there are chores that need doing. Brenda and Ellie protest that they’re supposed to go school shopping with some neighbors, and then they wheedle their mother into giving them some money for the excursion. Jess watches his mother give the girls five dollars—even though he knows she doesn’t have the money to spare.
This passage shows that even as Jess works himself to the bone in hopes of one day securing his father’s begrudging approval, he often watches as his sisters are showered with affection and special treatment. Jess is surrounded by girls, forced to earn his parents’ approval in a way his sisters aren’t.
Jess gets stuck doing most of the chores, including milking Miss Bessie and picking beans from the vegetable patch in the yard. In the heat of the afternoon, May Belle comes outside to tell Jess to look across the street—a family is moving into the “ratty old country house” once owned by a family called the Perkins. Jess knows that people who move into the Perkins place never stay for long. Later, the narrator says, Jess will marvel at how “the biggest thing in his life” is a moment he “shrugged […] off as nothing.”
This passage foreshadows just how important the people who are moving into the old Perkins house will come to be in Jess’s life. This is one of the book’s rare moments of overt foreshadowing, and Paterson uses it to suggest that Jess will soon have an antidote to his less-than-ideal home life.