Jeanette tells a story that took place “a long time ago, when the kingdom was divided up into separate compartments like pressure cookers,” and people took travels to other realms a lot more seriously than they do now, considering problems such as what sort of monsters they might come across and what to do should they encounter a wizard “who wants to keep an eye on you.” In these days of old, Jeanette says, magic was very important, and many people drew chalk circles around themselves to keep themselves safe from magic and harm. Wizards, especially, must spend many years in a chalk circle during their training, until they can push their magic outside the bounds of their own hearts. It is not possible for them to change anything, she says, until they understand the substance they wish to change.
At perhaps the most crucial cliffhanger in the narrative, Jeanette launches into a fanciful tale that is the most involved story-within-a-story in the entire novel. Jeanette explains the world her story will take place in—one in which magic is a means of control (and thus a metaphor for religion), and where one must train for many years to develop the self-protective tools necessary to survive. This story directly mirrors Jeanette’s life as she prepares to push her way out of the “chalk circle” of her childhood, and find a new chalk circle to protect herself in the wider world.
A young girl named Winnet wanders the woods, and is followed by a strange black bird with huge wings. After a while, the bird disappears. Later that same afternoon, Winnet comes upon a sorcerer standing on the opposite bank of a rushing stream. The sorcerer calls out to Winnet, and tells her that he knows her name. Winnet is afraid—if the sorcerer is telling the truth, then that means he has power over her. Naming means power, after all; Adam named the animals and then the animals came at his call.
Winnet is clearly a stand-in for Jeanette, and her journey through the forest mirrors Jeanette’s journey for self-discovery. When Winnet comes upon a sorcerer, she knows that if she allows him to name her or to guess her name, she will give him power—just as Jeanette’s adoptive mother named her and thus attained power over her, and just as Adam, in the Bible, gained power over the animals he named.
Winnet tells the sorcerer she doesn’t believe him, and the sorcerer tells her to cross the stream so that he can whisper her name in her ear. Winnet, knowing that the land across the bridge must be the sorcerer’s territory, refuses. The sorcerer warns her that she will never get out of the forest without his help. After a difficult night struggling in the mud and fighting off an army of water ants, Winnet is taunted by the sorcerer, who smiles at her from the other side of the river. The sorcerer lights a fire and gets out a cooking pot, trying to tempt Winnet to cross the bridge with the promise of food.
Jeanette needed her mother for a long time—she could never have found herself, and never survived childhood, were it not for her mother. But her mother was manipulative and selfish, and lured her into the realm of fanaticism with promises of specialness, glory, and fulfillment. Winnet is skeptical, knowing that the sorcerer’s powers are great, and is reluctant to travel across the bridge to his land, thus aligning herself with him.
Winnet tells the sorcerer she will not dine with him because he will try to poison her. The sorcerer, shocked, promises that he would never poison her. Winnet asks the sorcerer how she can trust him, and he confesses that he does not know her name—if he did, he would have been able to spirit her over the river. Winnet makes a pact with the sorcerer—she will dine with him, and after the meal he will tell her what he wants from her and the two of them will hold a contest to decide what to do. The sorcerer creates a chalk circle for Winnet to ensure her protection.
Jeanette’s mother promised her that she only ever wanted the best for her—but it became clear over the years that Jeanette’s mother longed for control rather than true love for the child she willingly adopted into her home. As Winnet tests the waters with the sorcerer, the sorcerer assures Winnet she will be protected—just as Jeanette’s mother assured her.
Winnet joins the sorcerer at his table and eats hungrily. After the meal, the sorcerer reveals to Winnet that he wants to make her his apprentice—he can tell she has gifts, he knows she can take his message to other places, and though he cannot force her to study under him, he hopes that she will tell him her name. If she doesn’t, he says, she will never be able to get out of her chalk circle. Winnet is angry to have been tricked, but strikes another bargain with the sorcerer—if he can guess her name, she’ll be his, but if he cannot, he must help her leave the forest. The sorcerer agrees, and the two of them play hangman. Eventually, the sorcerer guesses Winnet’s name, and the chalk circle around her vanishes. Winnet is nervous, but goes with the sorcerer to his castle.
As Jeanette’s mother told Jeanette that she was special, gifted, and bound to be a missionary, and then began to groom her for that life, so the sorcerer tells Winnet that he wants to train her in the magic arts. The sorcerer, though, has tricked Winnet into a trap—just as Jeanette’s mother, by falsely representing religion, goodness, and normalcy, tricked and trapped Jeanette into a life of fanaticism.
As Winnet settles in to castle life, she finds herself unable to remember how she got there, or what her life had been like before. She begins to believe that she had always been in the castle, and that she is the sorcerer’s daughter. The sorcerer has a good relationship with the villagers nearby, and soon Winnet becomes a friend to them as well. One day, a stranger comes to town, and he and Winnet strike up a friendship. On the day of the great feast, Winnet invites the stranger to the castle. She introduces him to her father, and asks the sorcerer if he will present the stranger with a present, as is customary at the feast. The sorcerer replies that Winnet has already decided the stranger’s present, and disappears. Winnet’s friend tells her that he is frightened, but Winnet assures him there is no need to be.
As Jeanette grew deeper and deeper entrenched in church life and preparing herself for the life of a missionary, she essentially fell under her mother’s—and the church’s—spell. Winnet’s boyfriend from town is a stand-in for Melanie, and the feast Winnet brings him to mirrors the Harvest Feast Jeanette and Melanie attended with their church friends and “family” just before their lives crumbled around them.
The feast is great fun, and at midnight the sorcerer gives his customary speech before handing out presents to the villagers. Soon, though, his face grows solemn, and he speaks of a blight upon the land. Then he seizes Winnet’s boyfriend and proclaims that the blight lies within him, and that he must be cast out—he has spoiled the sorcerer’s daughter. Winnet protests, but the sorcerer casts the boy down into the deepest darkest dungeon. That night, Winnet goes to the boy and sets him free, urging him to go to her father and deny her, blaming her for anything he wants.
At the feast, the sorcerer ambushes Winnet and her boyfriend, just as Melanie and Jeanette were ambushed in front of their entire congregation. The boyfriend doubles as a stand-in for Katy as the story progresses—Winnet offers to take the fall for her new friend, just as Jeanette volunteered to take the fall for Katy to keep her from being subjected to pain and violence by the pastors and church elders.
In the morning, Winnet goes to her father. The sorcerer tells Winnet that she has disgraced him, and must leave. Winnet begs to stay, and the sorcerer tells her that if she stays she must stay in the village as a goatherd. The sorcerer leaves Winnet to make up her mind. Winnet is about to cry, but then one of the sorcerer’s ravens lands on Winnet’s shoulder and offers her some advice. He tells her that if she leaves she won’t lose her power, she’ll just use it differently—sorcerers can never take back their gifts. If she stays, however, she will be “destroyed by grief.” The raven offers Winnet its heart, which is shaped like a brown pebble—he chose to stay, long ago, and his heart has grown thick with sorrow. Now it will serve as a reminder to Winnet to remain confident in her choice to leave.
Winnet’s decision to leave lest she be “destroyed by grief” mirrors Jeanette’s decision to leave both the church and her mother’s home. The raven is a stand-in for Jeanette’s demon, who guides her through a difficult decision and promises her that anything is better than staying and having one’s life torn apart. The raven could also be seen as a stand-in for Elsie, or even Miss Jewsbury, both women who have become shadows of who they could have been because of the strangling influence of the evangelical church.
Winnet’s father sneaks into the room, disguised as a mouse, and ties an invisible thread around one of Winnet’s buttons. She does not notice the thread, and in the morning she leaves the castle and crosses the river, leaving the forest behind.
What Winnet does not see—and what Jeanette perhaps does not yet see—is the invisible “thread” that will always tie both girls, forever, to their painful pasts and their scheming parent figures.
Jeanette is living with a considerate teacher from school and working at a funeral parlor, which pays well and allows Jeanette to wash the hearses if she needs extra money. Jeanette still drives the ice cream van, and sometimes does both jobs in one day. One day, making her rounds in the van, Jeanette turns onto Elsie’s street. She doles out some ice creams and then parks the truck. She goes into Elsie’s house, where she finds her mother, Mrs. White, and the pastor gathered in the parlor. Elsie is nowhere to be found. Jeanette asks what’s going on, but no one will answer her directly. Jeanette, distraught, begs her mother to tell her what’s going on, but the pastor tells Jeanette to go home. Jeanette replies that she doesn’t have a home.
Elsie’s death is doubly painful for Jeanette because she is being excluded even from mourning and celebrating Elsie’s life. She is not even allowed to know any of the details of her only true friend’s death. On top of everything, Jeanette’s mother is outright ignoring her, despite the fact that she has cast her only daughter out into the street and forced her to fend for herself at a painfully early age. Jeanette has no physical home, no spiritual home, and is both fed up with the people from her past and desperate to maintain a connection to them.
The pastor brings Jeanette into the hall and the two begin arguing. The pastor accuses Jeanette of using her “powers” over Melanie, but Jeanette protests that Melanie loved her, and told her so—but is wounded when she realizes that this is a lie, and that the pastor has trapped her in a clever kind of violence that “leaves no visible mark.”
The pastor may not have even known what he was doing by demanding that Jeanette lie about Melanie’s love for her—but it’s more likely that he did. Jeanette is forced to confront the fact that she has dismantled her life and left people who supposedly “love” her as the result of a failed and naïve love affair.
The story switches back to the tale of Winnet, who has wandered into a different part of the forest and become lost. A woman roaming the woods finds Winnet and helps her. Winnet returns to the woman’s village, where she is welcomed warmly. The people there have heard of the sorcerer and believe him to be dangerous. Winnet attempts to learn the language spoken in the new village, but has trouble gaining fluency. One day, Winnet hears of a beautiful, faraway city, with buildings that stretch to the sky. None of the villagers have ever been there, but they all “h[o]ld it in awe.” Winnet lies awake each night dreaming of the big city, sure that if she can get there, she’ll finally feel safe.
Winnet leaves the sorcerer but becomes lost in the woods—Jeanette has left her mother’s control but is now lost and alone. As Winnet is offered comfort and friendship by the few good new people in her life—the funeral parlor owners, the teacher sheltering her—she begins setting her sights on places beyond her small, insular, and suffocating town.
The next day at the funeral parlor, Jeanette’s bosses tell her that Elsie’s funeral is to be held there the following day at noon. Jeanette volunteers to clean out the hearse, because she wants Elsie to “have the best.” By the time Jeanette is done cleaning the car out, everyone has gone home, and Jeanette is able to see Elsie’s open coffin lying in the parlor. Jeanette talks to Elsie for a long time, and it is dawn before she goes home to her teacher’s house.
Jeanette’s devotion to Elsie, even in death, remains strong. She wants to repay Elsie for bringing her shelter, comfort, and solidarity in life. She misses her friend, and without someone like Elsie in her life, Jeanette fears being alone in a town that has grown to hate her.
In the morning, Jeanette is awakened by the telephone. Her boss at the funeral parlor has called to ask her if she will come in and serve the meal—his partner has suffered an injury and won’t be able to help him with the wake. Jeanette attempts to explain that she is an outcast in her congregation, and that there will be chaos if she shows up to Elsie’s funeral. Jeanette’s boss tells her that he doesn’t care, and Jeanette agrees.
Jeanette is nervous to see all of the members of her congregation, especially when she has effectively been banned from knowing anything about Elsie’s funeral, let alone participating in the services. Jeanette’s boss, though, doesn’t care about the tensions between Jeanette and her church, reflecting how small and strange the insular community is to anyone on the outside.
Jeanette manages to lay the food out surreptitiously without being noticed while Elsie’s service is going on in the next room, but when it is time for ice cream, another mishap means Jeanette has to serve it directly to all of the mourners. As she walks around the parlor serving vanilla ice cream to the pastor, Mrs. White, her mother, and her mother’s friends, the members of the congregation become enraged. Mrs. White tells Jeanette’s mother that her daughter is a demon, and Jeanette’s mother replies that Jeanette is “no daughter of [hers]” before leading the congregation out of the parlor.
Jeanette clashes with the members of her congregation at Elsie’s wake. As she somewhat contemptuously and provocatively serves them ice cream, she forces them to realize that expelling her does not erase her. Her mother publicly disowns her, which surely wounds Jeanette, but at the same time she is now so far removed from the realm of her former life that it almost doesn’t even matter.
After the commotion, as Jeanette returns to the kitchen, she feels someone standing behind her. It is Miss Jewsbury, who asks Jeanette how she’s faring. After the two catch up briefly, Miss Jewsbury asks if Jeanette will come visit her—Jeanette declines, and Miss Jewsbury leaves. Elsie’s funeral is the last time that Jeanette works in the funeral parlor—she takes a new job at a mental hospital, where she is able to live in the facility and have a room of her own.
As Jeanette realizes there is nothing else left in town for her, she says goodbye to the one person from her past with whom she never had any closure—Miss Jewsbury, who still seems to harbor a longing for Jeanette. Jeanette, however, knows that it is time for her to move on, and to leave her past and everything in it behind.
Winnet continues dreaming of the faraway city, though many villagers tell her that it doesn’t even exist, or insist she’ll be unhappy even if she finds it. Nevertheless, Winnet’s determination grows. She finds a map and realizes she must venture out into the sea if she wishes to find the city, and she is afraid, but decides to build her own boat anyway. On her last night in the village, Winnet has a dream in which her eyebrows become two bridges leading to a hole between her eyes. In the dream Winnet must drop down the hole and follow the spiral staircase inside, encountering horrible things on her way down. When Winnet wakes up it is raining, and she is crying. She gets into her boat and rows out to sea, more determined than ever to find the city.
Winnet’s leaving the village in which she has found shelter, comfort, and community mirrors Jeanette’s decision to leave her town for good. Though Jeanette and Winnet are both afraid, uncertain, and haunted by their troubled pasts, they set out anyway. Winnet’s dream of falling down a spiral staircase mirrors Jeanette’s earlier dream in which she ascended a spiral staircase but could never reach the top no matter how hard she tried. Both dreams reveal the women’s anxieties about their inadequacies.
Jeanette has left her hometown and is living in a city. One of her new friends asks her when she last saw her mother, but Jeanette does not want to think of her past. Her friend asks her if she ever thinks of going back, which Jeanette sees as a “silly question.” She’s always thinking of going back, but more out of shame and pain than longing. Jeanette’s friend asks her what would have happened if she had stayed, and Jeanette muses that she could have been a priest instead of a prophet, following prescribed words from an ancient book rather than being a “voice in the wilderness.” Still, Jeanette acquiesces, admitting that the demons that lie within her have traveled with her.
Jeanette has made a new life for herself, but questions about her past haunt her constantly. She herself admits that the past is never far from her mind, no matter how hard she tries to bury it. Jeanette knows that if she had stayed, she would be only a shadow of the person she has instead become, and though her demons have traveled with her she is grateful for the freedom they have ultimately given her.
Jeanette travels by train to her hometown through heavy snow. The journey is uncomfortable, and it seems as if many mad people are on Jeanette’s train. At last, Jeanette arrives home and disembarks the train. As she walks through her town, she sees a tall Christmas tree out front of the town hall.
Jeanette’s journey home for Christmas is full of difficulty and encounters with the strange, the uncanny, and the frightening, perhaps reflecting Jeanette’s anxiety about returning home.
Jeanette arrives at her front door, and she peeks through the window into the parlor. Her mother is playing a Christmas carol on an electric organ. Jeanette lets herself in and greets her mother, who is excited to show off her new keyboard. Jeanette asks her mother if she got the organ from the Society for the Lost, and Jeanette’s mother, embarrassed, admits that the society has been disbanded after corruption was discovered at the Morecambe guest house. The place has fallen into disrepair despite Jeanette’s mother’s fundraising efforts to save it, and now a medium who offers séances has set up shop there. Jeanette and her mother catch up for a while, and then Jeanette, tired from her trip, heads to bed.
Jeanette returns home to find that things are different only in small ways. Her mother is more or less the same, though it’s evident that her faith has been tested as the church has fallen victim to corruption. The church’s guest house, once a haven for congregants, has been taken over by a “heathen” medium who represents the public abandonment of devout Christianity, and instead an enchantment with mysticism and the answers it provides.
Sir Perceval comes to a glorious castle on a hill. As he approaches, the drawbridge lowers to let him in. Two dwarves welcome the weary Sir Perceval to the castle and show him a room where he can rest. Perceval laments having ever left Camelot, knowing that he has traveled too far to turn back. Perceval falls asleep and dreams of the moment the Grail first appeared to the Knights of the Round Table, and they each saw themselves and each other anew. When Perceval wakes, it is time for dinner, and he plans to greet his host warmly and tell them, whoever they are, of his quest, but not his reason for seeking it—his desire to become the perfect hero.
Jeanette’s return home is reflected in Perceval’s uneasy stay at a foreign castle. Though not much has changed at home, Jeanette is still feeling like a stranger there. Perceval and Jeanette have both been seeking perfection and glory all their lives, and now it appears as if perhaps neither will achieve their goals. Jeanette worries she will become bogged down by her regret and trauma, and the weary and disturbed Perceval longs for home.
Jeanette’s mother wakes her up with a cup of hot chocolate and a shopping list, and bids her to go run some errands. Jeanette picks up a pair of snow boots and then decides to visit Mrs. Arkwright at the pest shop. Jeanette asks Mrs. Arkwright how business is, and Mrs. Arkwright reveals that things are terrible ever since everyone in town has stopped using outhouses and gotten indoor plumbing. Jeanette asks Mrs. Arkwright what she’s going to do, and Mrs. Arkwright excitedly confides in Jeanette: she is planning to use all her savings and emigrate to Spain, but first, she is going to burn down her shop for the insurance money. She offers to send Jeanette a newspaper clipping after the incident occurs.
Jeanette encounters a figure from her past, Mrs. Arkwright, who represented the less desirable things in life—Jeanette’s mother looked down on the woman, who lived in a poor neighborhood and ran a vermin shop. Mrs. Arkwright, like Jeanette, has decided to burn her life to the ground and start over, but Mrs. Arkwright has decided to go about doing so a little more literally. Nonetheless, she is excited, just as Jeanette was once so excited to get out of town and move on.
After Jeanette finishes running her errands, she stops at a restaurant to eat and think. She puzzles at how her mother is treating her as she always has and doesn’t even seem to remember why Jeanette left. Jeanette wonders if, in making the choice to leave, she somehow left a part of herself behind, and that she is, in some universe, still an evangelist living in her hometown.
Jeanette’s guilt over leaving and the residual pain of all that happened to her in her youth loom so large in her life that it is impossible for her to comprehend how her mother has seemingly forgotten or moved on completely. Jeanette wonders about fact and fiction, and whether multiple lives are possible.
After leaving the restaurant, Jeanette doesn’t go straight home. She walks up the hill, and stands at the top, thinking about God and her abandoned faith. Jeanette misses God, and doesn’t see Him as her betrayer, but has come to realize that “if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it.” Jeanette has had trouble in her own relationships for this reason, and as per the “gypsy” woman’s prediction, has never been able to settle. She wants a powerful and deep love, but is afraid of being betrayed, and considers how she can reconcile her wild dreams of passion with the realities of romantic love.
As Jeanette reflects on the void religion has left in her life, she considers the impossibility of finding a relationship as fulfilling—or demanding—as the relationship she once had with God and her church. Jeanette is both unsettled and motivated by the fact that the gypsy woman’s prediction has, after all, come true as she meditates on the nature of faith and what it means to be faithful to an idea, a path, or a person.
Looking down the hill, Jeanette can see the house where Melanie used to live. She reveals that she once ran into Melanie in the city—Melanie was pushing a stroller and had appeared almost vegetable-like. Jeanette wondered at how the two of them had ever had a relationship. She repeats her theory that “time is a great deadener.” As Jeanette walks down the hill it is getting dark outside. She misses her dog, who has died, and her old self, who she feels has died as well.
Jeanette feels both deeply connected to and bizarrely removed from the events of her past. Running into Melanie no longer triggers any painful emotions, as time has “deadened” the hurt Jeanette once felt, but she is still in mourning for the parts of herself she lost when she abandoned her religion, her family, and her hometown.
When Jeanette arrives home, she startles her mother, who is listening to the radio. The two eat dinner, and Jeanette’s mother tells her the story of how she built her own CB radio and now speaks regularly to Christians all over England. As Jeanette listens to her mother speak, she begins to wish that when she goes to bed she will “wake up with the past intact.” She feels she has “run a great circle,” and met herself again at the start.
As Jeanette settles back into life at home—even though she’s just visiting—she finds herself mournful and regretful, wishing that she could erase all that has happened and find the past still “intact.” She feels that she has traveled so far to move so little—she has overcome so much but has still ended up, somehow, right back where she started: listening to the radio with her mother.
After dinner, Sir Perceval’s host retreats to bed, but Perceval stays at the dinner table, examining his hands. One hand is strong and firm, but the other looks “underfed” and uncomfortable. At dinner, Perceval’s host had asked him why he left Camelot, and Perceval stayed silent, feeling shame in the realization that he had left for his own sake and “nothing more.” That night, when Perceval finally goes up to bed, he dreams that he is a spider hanging on an oak tree. A raven comes and breaks the thread holding him to his web, and he hits the ground and scuttles away.
As Perceval admits to himself that he left Arthur and Camelot only because of self-interest and ambition, he feels himself start to crumble. His dream in which the “thread” of spider’s silk connecting him to his web ties in with the Winnet tale, as the “thread” that connected Winnet to her father—and by proxy Jeanette to her mother—is at last severed. (It also perhaps references an image from Jonathon Edwards’ famous fire-and-brimstone sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.) Due to their severance of their pasts, Perceval and Jeanette are both at last free.
At Christmas Eve dinner with Mrs. White, Mrs. White becomes so nervous in Jeanette’s presence that she suffers a fit and has to be taken home. Jeanette’s mother faults Jeanette for Mrs. White’s illness. To pass the time before opening presents, Jeanette and her mother play a board game. When Jeanette wins, her mother exclaims that she cheated, and mutters to “never trust a sinner.” At midnight, Jeanette’s mother gleefully opens her presents, one of which is a catapult Jeanette’s father built so that she can launch dried peas at the cats next door.
Though Jeanette’s mother has been treating her as if nothing is wrong, at Christmas Eve that façade begins to break down. First, Mrs. White is nervous to the point of breakdown in the presence of a “sinner” like Jeanette; later, playing games, Jeanette’s mother—perhaps in jest, but also betraying her true underlying belief—calls Jeanette a “sinner” to her face.
For the next few days, Jeanette does not see much of her parents, as they are in church. A few days later, Jeanette reads a letter that has come from the Society, which contains “dreadful news” about the guest house in Morecambe: the owner has taken to drink, and has embarked on an affair with a “strange charismatic man who had once been the official exorcist to the Bishop of Bermuda.”
As Jeanette receives more bad news about the guest house in Morecambe, she realizes that her mother’s world is still crumbling. Jeanette has had the opportunity to pick herself up, move on, and create a new life for herself, but her mother has not yet reached bottom—and by the time she does, the chance to change may have passed her by.
Jeanette feels for her mother, whose involvements with the Society for the Lost and the Morecambe house have brought her only pain. Jeanette sits by the fire, waiting for her mother to return home from church, and reflects on how she has no means of joining another family and no means of dismissing her own. After a while, her mother blusters in through the kitchen door, reads the letter, and throws it on the fire. She calls for Jeanette to fetch her her headphones, and she settles in with her radio, calling someone in Manchester.
As the novel comes to a close, Jeanette watches her mother, in the wake of receiving the gutting news about the scandal in Morecambe, struggle frantically to connect with other Christians through the use of her CB radio. Physically, Jeanette and her mother are back at the kitchen table where the novel began, and still listening to the radio together, but emotionally they have traveled uncountable miles. Jeanette at last sees her mother as a woman desperate for connection in a world in which her beliefs, values, and community are becoming increasingly irrelevant; a woman still clinging to the hope of finding someone who will be on “her team.”