A girl named Kira, her age unspecified, calls for her mother, but no one replies. Kira’s mother, who was named Katrina, has died recently, and now her spirit is leaving her. Katrina was a warm, kind woman, but now she is only a body, about to be eaten by animals. Kira cries—she has never experienced death before, and loved her mother very much.
This is a gruesome way to begin a children’s book! There are plenty of children’s books where the main character loses a parent, but the description of Katrina’s body decomposing is terrifyingly vivid. Throughout the novel, Kira will deal with the pain of her mother’s death, and it’s strikingly rendered in this opening section. It’s also worth noting that Kira’s age is unclear—we’ll quickly come to see why this is the case.
Kira thinks about the death rituals she has seen other families go through. Families bring the dead and the wounded to die in a place called the Field of the Living. Kira thinks that a woman named Helena is standing in the Field of the Living, watching as her infant daughter’s spirit leaves her body. In Kira’s society, infant deaths do not require the customary four days in which family members watch spirits leave the body.
Clearly, we’re in an unfamiliar place, characterized by unfamiliar customs—and indeed, for many pages, we won’t fully understand what’s happening, since we’re not yet familiar with the society in which this novel is set. For now, though, it’s strange to note that the Field of the “Living” is actually a final resting place for the dead.
Kira has no family and no home; her home has been burned, along with everything in it. This is the custom after someone dies of “sickness.” Kira thinks that there is fear everywhere in her community, which is known only as “the village.” Villagers are afraid of the cold, of disease, of hunger, etc. Now, Kira’s fear motivates her to build a new shelter. She thinks that her shelter will be difficult to make, because she has a lame leg. Nevertheless, she will find a way to survive.
We begin to catch glimpses of Kira’s society. Clearly, it’s a society with a lot of fear. At the same time, it’s apparently a society with almost no compassion—it seems as if no one will be taking care of Kira after her mother’s death, even though she’s a child. With this in mind, it’s impressive to see Kira thinking as optimistically as she does here—she converts her fear into action.
Kira thinks about her mother’s brother. Yesterday, while Kira was sitting in the Field of the Living, watching her mother’s spirit leave her body, Katrina's brother was also present, watching the spirit of his dead wife, Solora, who died in childbirth. Although Kira and her mother’s brother acknowledged each other, they didn’t speak. Later, her mother’s brother left the Field to return to his two children, who are so young that their names have only one syllable: Dan and Mar. Kira wonders what her future will be, and thinks for a moment that she might be allowed to care for Dan and Mar. Then, she realizes that this is impossible: healthy infant children, or “tykes,” as they’re known, are highly valuable, and are sold to families that need children.
We learn more about this society: there aren’t complex family relationships (for instance, the world “uncle” apparently isn’t a part of the collective vocabulary). This suggests that family itself isn’t very important to this society: it’s been whittled down to its simplest form of mother, father, and child. Clearly, the society isn’t very technologically advanced, since dying in childbirth is common. Ages are calculated very crudely, based on the syllables in one’s name: the more syllables, the older one is. (These ages seem to correspond roughly to young children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly.
As she prepares to leave the Field of the Living, Kira thinks of a story her mother used to tell her. Kira was born “fatherless,” with a twisted leg. When Kira was so young that she didn’t even have her one-syllable infant name, “Kir,” people came to Katrina planning to take her daughter to the Field of the Living to die. This is the custom in her society, Kira thinks, and the merciful thing to do. Growing up, Kira would tell Katrina, “they didn’t know it was me,” and Katrina would reply, “It wasn’t you, yet.”
The practice of killing babies for being unhealthy seems barbaric, yet in this society, it’s perfectly normal. Even Katrina, who presumably loves Kira, doesn’t have a problem with infanticide itself—she doesn’t even blame the villagers for wanting to kill Kira. Clearly, the villagers have little compassion for one another—perhaps this is because of the atmosphere of fear Kira has mentioned. It’s in this section that we learn how people in Kira’s community are named: the more syllables in your name, the older you are.
Katrina would tell Kira that her father was taken by beasts; thus, Katrina feared that she wouldn’t be able to have another child. As a baby, Kira had bright eyes, and gripped Katrina’s hands, showing her strength. For these reasons, Katrina refused to let Kira be taken to the Field of the Living. Katrina’s father had a four-syllable name, and was the chief guardian: the leader of the village. Kira’s father, Christopher, was also meant to become a guardian before animals killed him. Thus, Katrina was able to convince the people who came to take Kira away that they must let her keep her daughter. Since that time, Kira has made up for her lame leg with her strong hands and intelligence. She helps the women who work in the weaving shed, and entertains children with her vivid stories. Kira is also a brilliant weaver, whose abilities had already surpassed those of her mother when she died.
Family in the village isn’t worth very much. In other words, having a powerful grandfather or father is helpful, but not too helpful. Thus, after Kira’s parents die, she has no protection, money, or property left to her. Despite this grim situation, Kira shows that she can work through her pain and suffering and make the best of her situation. Even though she’s lame, she makes up for it with her intelligence and strong fingers. We also get the first signs of her artistic abilities, which will quickly become the focal point of the novel. Kira’s creativity doesn’t seem to stem from training or education of any kind—she just knows how to weave.
Yet, despite what Katrina would tell Kira, Kira sees now that she isn’t useful to her village. She helps in the weaving shed, but in general her labor is minimal because of her leg—she can’t gather food, as most of the women do. Also because of her leg, she will never make a good mate. She can tell entertaining stories and weave, but neither of these skills qualify as work, at least not even to the women in the weaving shed.
Kira thinks she’s useless, but only because of the way her society—a very sexist society—defines use. Women are expected to work as laborers, produce children, and little else. She isn’t confident in her own artistic abilities because she herself doesn’t know what these abilities accomplish, what value they have.
As Kira thinks about her mother and her life, she walks back to her village, noticing tykes along the way. Kira recognizes every tyke she sees, and watches as they play-fight and run from each other. When she was a tyke, Kira watched enviously as her peers played similar games.
Kira is a warm and compassionate person, especially by the village’s standards. Where others consider tykes annoying, she knows them all by name. We also begin to see why Kira is compassionate: as a child, she never played, due to her leg. Thus, being around tykes makes her think of the fun she never had.
Kira sees a boy of eight or nine years, named Matt. Matt is Kira’s friend. He lives in the Fen, and is probably the son of a dragger or a digger. Kira calls Matt, and he runs to her, followed by his dog. Matt asks Kira about Katrina’s spirit leaving her body. Matt speaks in the strange Fen dialect that causes most people in the village to look down on people from the Fen. Kira is not one of these people. She likes Matt a lot.
While most villagers judge others based on superficial things like their accents and dialects, Kira judges Matt based on his character. It’s interesting that Kira doesn’t know who Matt’s parents are—once again, it’s clear that family isn’t a very important concept in the village.
Matt is holding an armful of twigs. He tells Kira that her cott, or house, has been burnt. Whenever someone dies of sickness, Kira thinks, that person’s possessions are burnt. Sometimes, when the sickness spreads, there is a mass burning, after which the villagers bond over building new shelters. In Katrina’s case, though, only she died of sickness, meaning that the village barely noticed her death. Kira asks Matt to help her start building a new shelter, but Matt insists that he has to go collect twigs for the fire, or he’ll be whipped.
Ironically, Kira is a little disappointed that her mother’s death doesn’t merit a mass-burning—at least a mass-burning would bring the community together. As it is, Kira is completely on her own, separated from the other villagers. It’s disturbing that the village only cares about people’s deaths insofar as these deaths could spread disease to others.
Before leaving to collect more fire twigs, Matt tells Kira that the women of the village want to send Kira to the Field “for the beasts.” They want to claim the vacant space where Katrina’s cott used to be, and turn it into a pen to keep birds and tykes. Kira is horrified, but asks Matt who the strongest voice against her was. Matt answers that it was Vandara, and Kira is unsurprised.
Matt shows himself to be a useful informant for the first but not the last time in the novel. Lowry ends the first chapter on a note of suspense—what will happen to Kira, and who is Vandara?