Esch’s brother Skeetah’s dog, China, is giving birth to her first litter of puppies. As Esch watches the dog struggle and labor, she is reminded of her own mother’s final labor: the birth of her younger brother, Junior. Esch and all of her siblings were birthed in their house—a house built in a clearing in the woods called the Pit. Though Esch’s older brothers Randall and Skeetah and even Esch herself came into the world quickly, Junior came out “purple and blue as a hydrangea” after hours of difficult labor. Esch’s Daddy put her mother into his truck, against Mama’s protestations, and none of the children ever saw her again; she died at the hospital.
Right from the start, the novel establishes its primary concerns: motherhood, violence, the natural world, and the perils and demands of life in rural poverty. Esch and her family watch China’s labor intensely in spite of the trauma they were exposed to watching their mother’s most recent—and final—birth seven years ago.
Now, Esch observes that “what China is doing is fighting, like she was born to do.” Skeetah urges Esch, Randall, Junior, and their daddy to leave the shed and give China some space to breathe and relax, but they all want to stay and watch. Skeetah has been sleeping in the shed with China all week, waiting for the birth.
It is clear that Skeetah is anxious about China’s birth, and at least a little desperate to try and assert some control over the natural process of her labor despite his inherent inability to do so.
Esch tries to get Junior to turn away from the gory labor, but it is of no use; Junior wants to watch. He watched when China mated with the dog that impregnated her, too, and Esch observes now that he is watching China as if he’s watching television. Daddy insists that Junior is old enough to stay and watch.
Though Junior is only seven, his life has been hard due to his family’s difficult circumstances and he has seen things that children his age aren’t ordinarily exposed to.
Esch sees China start to struggle, and suggests Skeetah help her push. Skeetah insists that China doesn’t need any help; sure enough, seconds later, a “purplish red bulb” begins to “bloom” from China; the first puppy is arriving.
At a crucial moment, Skeetah chooses to allow nature to take its course rather than interfering with the delicate process of labor.
Earlier that day, Esch was awakened by her father knocking on the door of her and Junior’s room, urging them to get up so they could start preparing for the next hurricane. It’s summer, and during summer, there is always a hurricane coming or going to or from the family’s Mississippi Gulf town, Bois Sauvage. Esch, still exhausted, fell back asleep, and woke up hours later to the sounds of Junior fishing jugs and bottles out from under the house at his father’s instruction; Daddy wanted to start cleaning the vessels and filling them with water.
Esch and her family live lives that are deeply enmeshed in the natural world. China’s birth establishes this fact from one angle—the willful acceptance of nature into their home—and the approach of a new hurricane establishes it from another, demonstrating the ways in which nature makes its ways into their lives unannounced and unwelcome.
Esch could hear the sounds of her brothers talking with their friends; she could recognize the voice of Manny, one of Randall’s buddies, talking about how no more hurricanes were going to hit. Esch heard her Daddy insisting the opposite: that this year’s storm season was the worst in his memory. As Esch pulled her hair back and dressed, preparing to join the boys outside, she thought of her reading for class: Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and wondered if when Medea met her husband Jason for the first time she felt what Esch was feeling.
This passage establishes the constant influence of male voices on Esch’s existence. From the moment she wakes up most mornings, she is surrounded by male beings and male energy; to compensate, she has retreated largely into her imagination and into the myths she’s studying in school, attempting to learn about what it is to be a woman from other sources.
Now, blood oozes from China as she pushes the first puppy into the world. China writhes and bucks, and Esch thinks she looks like a churchgoer who has “caught the ghost.” Skeetah catches the first puppy in a towel and notes that it is “orange, like [its] daddy;” Skeetah predicts that the puppy will be a “killer.”
There is an air of myth, too, to the process of China’s labor. From the religious associations in Esch’s head to Skeetah’s role in helping bring the puppies into the world, China’s first litter seems to be an auspicious brood.
The second puppy comes just after the first; it is small and white with tiny black spots. Esch notes that the puppy looks like a “flat cartoon dog;” after looking at it for a moment, she realizes it is stillborn. Skeetah is briefly discouraged, but then realizes that a third puppy is coming right away. The puppy is a girl; she is white and brown and alive. China growls and yelps; the labor is not done.
Though Skeetah is excited as the puppies begin to come, there is a violence and a darkness to the joyous occasion, too; Skeetah and everyone else is reminded of this when the stillborn puppy comes.
Esch thinks back, again, to earlier that day. As she walked outside and greeted Manny, who was playing basketball with Randall in the yard, she felt hot and nervous. Before she could talk to Manny, Daddy urged her to rinse the jugs Junior was pulling out from underneath the house. As Esch rinsed the red earth from the jugs, more of Randall and Skeetah’s friends arrived: Big Henry and Marquise. The Pit, Esch thinks, feels “empty” without her brothers’ friends around.
Esch’s fascination with Manny is interrupted by her father’s demands. In their earlier conversation, Manny and Daddy were arguing about the storms, and this argument introduces their personalities: Daddy is desperate for control despite having none, whereas Manny’s indifference to the threat of a catastrophic hurricane shows how desensitized he is to violence, to chance, and to things beyond his control.
Esch listened to the boys talk; they soon brought up Manny’s girlfriend, Shaliyah. Esch was shaking water around in a jug to clean it, and it cracked in her hands. She began bleeding. Not wanting the boys—especially Manny—to see her and pity her, she hurried to rinse the cut underneath the faucet on the side of the house. Randall came up beside her and examined the cut; he told her to press on it until it stopped bleeding, advice their mother used to give them when, as children, they got cuts or scrapes playing in the Pit. Esch noticed Manny staring at them; as she did, he looked away.
This passage makes clear Esch’s overwhelming and even violent desire for Manny. When she hears him talking about his girlfriend, she cracks a large, heavy jug—this shows the power of her devastation when she doesn’t get what she wants where Manny is concerned, and it sets up a parallel between Esch and the mythical Medea (whose desire was also violent).
The fourth puppy is black-and-white and mews more loudly than his siblings. This puppy is Esch’s favorite so far, and she wants to keep it for herself. She knows, though, that Skeetah will never let her, as the pup is worth too much money. China is a renowned fighting dog in Bois Sauvage, and her puppies will fetch a high price—especially considering the fact that the dog that sired them, Kilo, is equally fierce. The dog’s owner, Rico, is Manny’s cousin, and he makes his whole living dogfighting. The fifth puppy comes; it is pure white, China in miniature. The puppy is silent, and Esch worries that it is dead; Skeetah pets the puppy with one finger, though, and it soon comes to life. A “fighter” like her mother, the puppy takes her first breath.
This passage establishes the high stakes—and ubiquitous presence—dogfighting has in this community. A rural and poor area, there is little to make money off of; the fact that many central characters in the novel devote their lives and livelihoods to trying to control animals and pervert nature speaks to several of the novel’s major themes. Strength and viciousness are revered in this community; the white puppy’s “fighter” attitude pleases Skeetah even though she is just seconds old.
Earlier, when Esch finished washing out all the jugs and placed them in the kitchen, she took a walk towards the woods at the edge of the Pit. The boys had finished their basketball game, and Junior had gone to the woods to hunt for armadillos. As Esch walked towards the forest, she thought about the history of her family’s land. Her mother’s parents, Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph, originally owned all fifteen acres of the Pit. Papa Joseph let neighboring white folks dig the land up for clay, and their excavation created a pond. Both of Esch’s grandparents have passed, and now it is just her, her father, and her brothers left on the family’s land. The Pit has become overgrown, and because Esch’s father burns all their garbage on the property, it often smells like plastic and trash. The water in the pond often gets low and turns the color of a scab.
This passage shows the ways in which Esch and her family have had to allow others to ravage their land in order to survive, and demonstrates the mechanisms of race and class, which keep families like Esch’s stuck in cycles of rural poverty, isolation, and the gradual fall into disrepair.
Walking up to the pond earlier, Esch stared down into it for a while, and when she turned to leave, she ran into Manny, who predicted that there would be rain soon, and they’d all be able to swim in the pond. Esch was too afraid to make a move on Manny, but he reached out and grabbed her ass, pulling her shorts down and peeling off her clothes. Esch has slept with many boys—when she’s having sex, she feels like a Greek goddess; “beloved.” Every time she sleeps with Manny, though, she feels different than she’s felt with other boys. She feels she has given Manny her true heart, her “pulpy ripe heart.”
For Esch, sex is one of the rare times she gets to feel in touch with both her femininity and with feelings of power over herself and others. Esch craves attention and escape as a result of her chaotic and claustrophobic family life; during sex, she gets both the physical release of contact and the imaginative release of allowing herself to pretend she is one of the characters in the myths she loves.
Back in the shed, China is licking her puppies clean; Esch has never seen her so gentle. Daddy warns everyone that China’s labor is not done—she still has to pass the afterbirth. Sure enough, as if she can hear him, China suddenly stands up and walks to a corner of the shed, where she squats and delivers the afterbirth. She turns around and eats it, then walks over to Skeetah and licks his pinkie.
This passage shows the maelstrom of violence and sweetness that surrounds China. One moment, she is a fearsome creature surrendering to ancient animalistic instincts; the next she is a sweet pet, showing affection to her owner.
Esch can see something moving in the corner—Skeetah goes over to inspect it, and sees that China has abandoned in the corner the runt of the litter. It is a brindle puppy, and though it is half the size of the others, it is alive. Skeetah predicts, though, that the runt will soon die.
China’s abandonment of the runt in the puddle of afterbirth foreshadows the indifference she will develop towards several of her offspring as the novel progresses—ruthless as Medea, her children seem to mean little to her.
China grows stiff and rigid, glowering past her puppies and Skeetah towards Esch, Randall, and Junior. Skeetah tells everyone to leave the shed so that he can tend to China and the puppies. Inside, Randall gives Junior a bath; when Junior is done, Esch takes a lukewarm shower. She crawls into bed, feeling nauseous and lightheaded. She imagines Manny hovering above her, and thinks that he must love her “like Jason” loved Medea.
After an intense night watching China give birth, Esch turns to her equally intense fantasies of mythic love. Though the story of Jason and Medea ends in violence and bloodshed, Esch’s actual life has enough of those things in it that even her escapist fantasies are tinged with darkness that reflects her reality.