Ellie and Brenda, who promised their mother they’d be home from shopping by seven, don’t return by the appointed time. As a result, Mrs. Aarons is short-tempered, taking all her rage out on Jess. Jess fixes sandwiches for himself, May Belle, and Joyce Ann since their mother is too tired to make them supper. May Belle says she hopes that the family that moved into the Perkins house has a young girl for her to play with—she’s sick of playing with Joyce Ann. Joyce Ann starts to cry, and Jess, annoyed, gets up and goes to his room to draw. Drawing is the one thing that calms Jess down.
This passage shows how Jess reacts when tensions in his family simply become too much to bear. Between his older sisters’ ability to get away with anything and his younger sisters’ chaotic neediness, Jess’s only escape is through his art—and the fantasy it provides him.
Jess’s drawings are often fantastical renderings of animals in funny, silly situations. As much as Jess loves drawing, he knows he must do it in secret—his father believes that art is a soft, girlish pursuit that is making Jess less of a man. The only person in the world Jess feels comfortable showing his art to is Miss Edmunds, the music teacher at Lark Creek Elementary—a beautiful, young, talented woman with whom Jess is “in love.” Miss Edmunds is the only one who has ever encouraged Jess’s art—though Jess’s sisters and parents believe the hippie-ish Miss Edmunds is a bad influence, Jess looks forward to her music class each week and admires her individualistic sense of style. Jess feels that neither he nor Miss Edmunds belongs in the “backwards” Lark Creek.
This passage shows just how out-of-place Jess feels both at home and in his town more largely. Jess has a creative spirit and a need for self-expression—but his parents believe that anything that goes against the norm or challenges prescribed gender roles is suspect or disappointing. Jess longs to break free from the pressure of his parents’ judgement.
Mrs. Aarons calls Jess out of his room, reminding him to go milk Miss Bessie again. While he’s out tending the cow, his sisters return home. Jess feels lonely among all the women in his family and longs for the company of his dad, who commutes back and forth to Washington each day. Even when he’s home, though, Mr. Aarons is too tired to do anything with Jess at all. Just at that moment, Mr. Aarons’s car pulls into the drive. Jess watches May Belle run outside and rush toward it to hug and kiss their father—he wishes he could join her, but any time he expresses any affection, his father pushes him away.
Jess’s father is so fixated on his son learning how to act like a man that he even denies him physical affection. Jess loves his parents, but he isn’t allowed to nurture the parts of himself that are soft, tender, or emotional for fear of appearing weak in the eyes of his hypermasculine dad.
The next morning, Jess gets up early to run even though he’s tired. While he runs through the field, imagining himself racing against Wayne Pettis, he hears a voice call out to him, teasing him about running away from Miss Bessie. Jess turns to see a person about his age—he can’t tell if they are a boy or a girl—sitting on the fence in an undershirt and faded cutoffs. As the person continues talking, explaining that their family has just moved into the house across the street, Jess realizes they are a girl. The girl introduces herself as Leslie Burke, and Jess introduces himself in return, then heads for the house. Leslie asks where Jess is going and if he wants to play, but he insists he has work to do.
As Jess meets Leslie for the first time, he has a hard time placing her in one box or another in terms of gender. This foreshadows the ways in which Leslie will come to teach Jess that it’s okay to break the mold of conformity, to push back against society’s prescribed gender roles, and to enjoy life to its fullest.