The narrator, Reuben, tells the reader that all he ever wanted was a "good set of lungs." When he was born in 1951, his lungs refused to work. His father, Jeremiah, was pacing outside the hospital and praying while his mother labored inside. After the fifth time around the block, Jeremiah found himself running inside the hospital. Reuben says he adores this story, and often asked his father if God told him out loud that Reuben was in trouble; his father replied that he just knew. Dr. Nokes, inside with Reuben's mother, tried to get the infant Reuben to breathe, but his lungs were swampy and refused.
Reuben sets up several things for the reader straight off. First, fixing his breathing problem is a primary life goal of Reuben’s. Reuben also offers a glimpse of just how devoted his father is to religion and how deeply it influences his life—it's no small thing that God allowed him to know without evidence that his newborn son was in trouble.
When Jeremiah entered the room, Reuben lay uncovered on a metal table and Dr. Nokes was trying to comfort Mrs. Land. Jeremiah picked up the infant and commanded him to breathe. As Dr. Nokes tried to explain that after 12 minutes there might be brain damage, Jeremiah struck him across the face and Dr. Nokes fell to the floor, unconscious. Jeremiah returned to his son and commanded him to breathe in the name of God.
Jeremiah’s confidence here is remarkable—he hits the doctor who is trying to save his child, and instead just orders the child to breathe. Jeremiah must believe in God wholeheartedly, and he must believe that God is infinitely more powerful than medicine. God will come up against medicine several times throughout the novel.
Addressing the reader, Reuben says he didn't think too much about his birth until much later, although he relished telling the tragic story that he was born nearly dead. He wonders why he was allowed to breathe, and realizes now that the answer is miracles. Miracles, he explains, aren't everyday things like sunshine; rather, miracles "contradict the will of earth." Swede, Reuben's sister, says often that miracles are fearful to people, and also that miracles don't happen without a witness.
Reuben obviously survived if he's here to tell the story. This asserts for the reader that Jeremiah's miracles aren't myth or legend—they are real in Reuben's world, and the reader must take them as fact. Swede’s statement about miracles needing a witness is also notable, as Reuben was a witness to the miracle of his lungs, and he will witness many more miracles.
Reuben says that while several people witnessed Jeremiah's miracles, most of them ignored what they saw. Reuben believes he was allowed to live so that he could bear witness to his father's miracles.
Reuben believes that he was allowed to live in order to be a disciple for his father. This book, then, becomes almost biblical, as Reuben tells what is really the story of his father's miracles.