Katniss Everdeen stands in the ruins of her old home, District 12. Only a month ago, she thinks, the Capitol—the government and ruling class of Panem, the nation in which she lives—blew up a huge chunk of District 12 with a firebomb. The only remaining part of District 12 is the Victor’s Village, the area in which the winners of the “Hunger Games” reside.
We begin en medias res—in the middle of the action. We’re not told who Katniss is, or what District 12 means—Collins assumes that we’ve read the first two books in the Hunger Games trilogy, so all this is familiar territory.
Katniss is standing with Plutarch Heavensbee, the former lead gamemaker of the Hunger Games, who has pretended to be working for the government, but in actuality is a rebel and ally of Katniss. Katniss and Plutarch have journeyed to District 13, a rebel stronghold—however, Katniss insisted on visiting the ruins of District 12, despite the fact that the government is looking for her.
There’s a lot of information in these opening sections, and it is only clarified later. For the time being, Collins establishes the basic contrast between two sides: the government, which organizes an event called the Hunger Games, and the rebels, with whom Katniss seems to be working.
Katniss remembers being in the hospital only a few weeks ago. A doctor gave her a technique for coping with grief and anxiety: make a list of the things she knows to be true. Katniss thinks the following: her name is Katniss Everdeen; she is 17, she lived in District 12; she competed in the Hunger Games; she escaped from the Games; the Capitol views her as an enemy; her dear friend Peeta was captured by the government, and he may be dead.
Here, more overtly than in the two earlier Hunger Games novels, Katniss is dealing with trauma. The horrific bombing of District 12 is almost unbelievable for Katniss—she feels like she’s walking through a dream—yet she’s learned coping techniques that help her keep a grasp on reality. This “technique” also gives Collins a chance for some basic exposition.
As Katniss thinks about Peeta, her best friend, Gale, calls her over the headset she’s wearing. Gale asks Katniss if she’s all right. Katniss insists that she is, even as she stares at dead bodies lying on the ground. She believes that she is responsible for these people’s deaths. She remembers the words Coriolanus Snow, the president of the government in the Capitol, told her: “you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem.” Looking around, Katniss concludes that Snow was right.
Katniss grapples with feelings of enormous guilt. While she didn’t bomb District 12 herself, her recklessness—at least in her mind—was directly responsible for the event. As a young woman, Katniss confronts more challenges than most grown adults do. While she mostly succeeds in coping with these challenges, there are times when she retreats into childish, immature behaviors—in this case, blaming herself for others’ misdeeds.
Katniss remembers the lives Gale saved recently. Gale had been toying with the idea of leading the people of District 12 against the government. After Katniss escaped from the Hunger Games, however, District 12’s electricity was cut off, and planes flew in to bomb the area. Gale, thinking quickly, led as many people as he could to the Meadow, an open plain where the bombers wouldn’t think to strike. Gale was able to save many people, including his mother, Katniss’s mother, and Katniss’s sister, Primrose (Prim).
Even in the midst of a huge tragedy, Katniss is capable of seeing the “brighter side” of things: her friend Gale was able to save some, if not all, of the people of District 12. Gale seems like a resourceful and intelligent character, capable of thinking quickly even in the midst of a crisis—and those familiar with the trilogy know that he is part of a love triangle with Katniss herself, so it is significant that they are working together at the start of this novel.
After Gale saved people from District 12, he led them away from the ruins of their old home. Using his skills as a hunter and a pathfinder, he led them toward District 13—a place that the government had falsely claimed to be uninhabitable, but which Gale correctly guessed was a rebel stronghold. After only a few days of navigating, Gale and his companions were picked up by a mysterious swarm of hoverplanes (essentially, helicopters) and flown to District 13. Katniss later learned that the inhabitants of District 13 took in Gale and his friends because they needed new people for breeding purposes. Katniss, too, has made her way to District 13. She notes that people in District 13 are trained and educated, and those over the age of 14 are entered into the military. Katniss doesn’t mind these measures, since she and her friends are cared for.
Katniss is content to have a place to live, but already something feels wrong: it seems barbaric that the leaders of District 13 would force 14-year-olds to fight in the military, even if soldiers are necessary to win the war effort. Like the government of the Capitol, the rebel alliance forces young people to fight in battles with which they don’t have any personal connection. In this way, Collins suggests a more complicated point than the one she seemed to be making at first: in spite of their differences, the government of the Capitol and the rebel alliance are eerily similar in many ways.
Katniss wanders through District 12, and various people waiting in a hovercraft give her directions via her headset. These people include Plutarch, Plutarch’s assistant Fulvia Cardew, and Alma Coin, the president of District 13. Coin is about fifty years old, with straight hair and grey eyes. Coin and the other rebels want Katniss to be a symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol. Now that most of the districts in Panem are openly at war with the government, Coin wants Katniss to make speeches inciting the people to fight, and encouraging rebels to persevere in their struggle. Katniss knows that her speeches will be carefully prepared for her, and that her public appearances will be orchestrated by Coin, Plutarch, and the other rebel leaders. The pin she used to wear, the mockingjay, has become a symbol of the revolution. Katniss is reminded, unpleasantly, of the Hunger Games themselves, in which she was often forced to follow a precise script. Yesterday, Katniss overheard Coin saying that the rebels should have rescued Peeta instead of Katniss—he would have been a better figurehead.
In this long, expository section, Collins fills in many of the gaps in our knowledge of the war, District 13, and the characters. We meet Plutarch and Coin, two importance characters in the story. Perhaps most importantly, we learn that the rebel alliance, like the government it’s fighting, is a large, well-organized force with a president. Their identical titles encourage us to immediately see the similarities between Coin and Snow, the president of the Capitol. Like Snow, Coin wants Katniss to be a figurehead for her side—to follow scripts, smile and wave, etc. Even President Coin’s last name is a not-so-subtle clue about her relationship to Snow: they’re on opposing sides in battle, but they are, ultimately, two sides of the same tyrannical “coin.”
As Katniss walks through her old home, she notices Buttercup, Prim’s beloved cat. Quickly, she calls Buttercup and carries her away from the house. Gale tells her that she needs to leave District 12 before she’s discovered. As Katniss turns to leave she notices a small white rose lying on her dresser. She realizes that this rose—clearly placed here only a few days ago—must have been left by President Snow. Katniss leaves her house, and finds a hovercraft waiting for her. Gale appears at the door of the hovercraft and helps Katniss inside. When Gale asks Katniss if she’s all right, Katniss replies that she’s fine, but she can’t stop thinking about the white rose, which was clearly sending a message: Snow can reach her, and may even be watching her right now.
At the end of the first chapter, we’re given another one of the ambiguous symbols that abound in the Hunger Games books. The white rose seems to have been placed in Katniss’s home by Coriolanus Snow, but it’s impossible to know this for a fact. Whether Snow placed the rose there or not, it’s clear that he’s skilled at manipulating other people: he’s intimidated Katniss so thoroughly that she thinks he’s constantly watching her. Snow is a masterful manipulator and a skilled politician.