The narrator begins the novel by telling a story from her past. The father of Newt Hardbine, a boy from the narrator’s rural hometown, overfilled a tire and was thrown over the building in the resulting explosion. The narrator feels bad for Newt in the wake of this family tragedy even though they are not friends. The Hardbines are a family at about the same low economic status as the narrator and her mother, but the narrator like to think that she and her mother have much more class. The narrator hopes she will be the one down-on-her-luck kid to get out of their small town in Pittman County, Kentucky.
The narrator and her mother do not belong in this small town, and the narrator wants to leave as soon as possible, starting the search for a new home that drives much of the novel’s plot. This section also introduces the narrator’s fear of disaster, in the form of exploding tires. She will experience much more disaster through the course of the novel and her character will be defined by how she deals with these tragedies.
The narrator introduces herself as Marietta, but says that everyone just called her Missy. This nickname came from Marietta’s childhood demand that people call her Miss Marietta, the way that she had to address the well-off children that she and her mother cleaned for as Miss or Mister. Marietta explains that her mother often supported Marietta’s wishes, even when they seemed odd. When Marietta took up fishing, her mother praised even the smallest fish that she caught.
Marietta, though poor, believes that she is just as good as the richer families in her hometown. Marietta will go on to question other social hierarchies, including those of race and sex, just like she disrupts the economic hierarchy here in Pittman. Marietta’s mother is a very important source of support and confidence for Marietta, and is Marietta’s template for a good mother.
While in high school, Newt drops out of school to work with his father and marries a girl he gets pregnant. Marietta explains that this is the best that anyone expects of a Hardbine, but that she herself was determined to finish high school. Marietta does not want to be “barefoot and pregnant” like the majority of the other girls in her grade. Marietta makes it to her senior year without incident.
Newt becomes Marietta’s foil, or complete opposite, as he and his young wife live out the type of choices that Marietta could have made if her mother had not supported her ambitions. Marietta suggests that other people’s expectations for one’s future play a large role in their development, and that she is lucky to have had a mother who allows her to excel.
During her senior year, Marietta’s science teacher is an attractive young man named Mr. Hughes Walter. All the girls in Marietta’s grade swoon over him, but Marietta likes him because he gets her a job. Mr. Walter’s wife needs an assistant at the Pittman County Hospital, a job that Marietta feels unqualified for but desperately wants.
Marietta seems to have no interest in the “feminine” pursuits that occupy most of her classmates. Instead she has career ambitions, specifically a job in the stereotypically male-dominated field of medicine. Though Marietta does not label this as feminism, she certainly lives out the ideals of equality between the genders.
Marietta tells her mother about her job insecurities while the two shuck peas on their front porch. Her mother responds that Marietta is just as qualified as all the other, richer kids in her class. Marietta describes the bright colors of the flowers on their front porch, explaining that she and her mother both like to wear these flashy colors as well.
Marietta and her mother shuck peas while they talk, a subtle reminder of their connection to agriculture and taking care of the land. They are both literally and figuratively more grounded than the richer residents of their hometown. Marietta’s mother continues to bolster Marietta’s self-confidence in the face of the limiting social codes Kingsolver describes in rural Kentucky. Even the clothes the two women wear have bright colors, which helps them stand out rather than blend into the background the way that women in Pittman County are “supposed” to.
As Marietta and her mother continue shucking peas, Marietta describes her mother as someone who has put her wild times behind her. Marietta’s father, a man named Foster Greer, was an alcoholic who left before Marietta was born because he didn’t want to settle down with a child. Now Marietta’s mother focuses on raising her daughter, and convinces Marietta to ask Mr. Walter for the job. Marietta assumes that one of the more attractive girls will have already gotten the job, but makes up her mind to ask Mr. Walter after school the next day.
Marietta’s mother was not always perfect, as evidenced by her wild experiences with Marietta’s alcoholic father. But Kingsolver shows that these mistakes don’t stop Marietta’s mother from being a wonderful mother, because she puts her child first. This starts during the pregnancy when Marietta’s mother puts aside her own relationships and focuses on her daughter rather than pining for Marietta’s father, and continues to the present day as Marietta’s mother pushes her to work towards her ambition even though it might be difficult due to Marietta’s class and gender. Significantly, though Marietta gives her father’s name, she does not mention her mother’s. This suggests a special closeness, as naming her father makes him seem like a more distant individual, separate from Marietta’s life.
Marietta stays after school to ask Mr. Walter if the hospital assistant position is still available. She is shocked to find out that she is the first girl to talk to Mr. Walter about the opportunity, because she knows that the other girls in her grade all daydream about getting Mr. Walter alone. Marietta gets the job and starts working in the lab under Eddie Rickett, as it turns out Mr. Walter’s wife was actually looking for an assistant in the hospital lab. Marietta counts platelets in blood samples and delivers human waste samples. Eddie, the head supervisor of the hospital laboratory, has a practical, no nonsense demeanor that Marietta appreciates.
Marietta again distances herself from the stereotypical female by going after this opportunity rather than dreaming about seducing Mr. Walter. Marietta’s thoughts about these other girls are tinged with contempt, as Marietta seems not to understand why the other girls wouldn’t want more than the domestic life awaiting them. Her job in the hospital is not glamorous, but it is intensely satisfying to Marietta. She also displays an “unfeminine” appreciation for her boss’s brusque, direct manner.
A week after Marietta starts her job in the lab at the Hospital, orderlies come in to warn that Hardbine trouble is coming in and that one is alive and the other is dead. Newt Hardbine’s wife, Jolene, shows up first. She has blood pouring out of a bullet wound in her shoulder and is yelling hysterically at Newt to stop fighting with his father. The doctors patch Jolene’s arm as best they can, while Marietta tries to clean up her clothing and calm her down. Then the orderlies wheel in another stretcher with a sheet over a body. Marietta slowly realizes that Newt’s dead body is on the second stretcher.
Marietta falls back on the traditionally feminine duties of cleaning and soothing when confronted with a crisis, as Kingsolver points out that these gender roles harden into habits that are hard to break. Marietta has struggled to escape the traditional occupations that await women in Pittman County, and the emergency before her takes too much energy on its own for Marietta to keep up her efforts to reject these stereotypes.
Marietta stays with Jolene, as Jolene continues to babble about what happened. Marietta wonders what it would be like to be Jolene, sleeping around in high school just to prove that she could and getting pregnant with Newt’s child at a young age. Jolene, in shock from the incident, finally manages to articulate the story: Newt’s father had been physically abusive for years and Newt finally fought back. Newt’s father tried to shoot Newt, eventually killing Newt and shooting Jolene in the arm. Marietta tries to understand why Jolene married into Newt’s family in the first place, but Jolene simply says that her own father always expected her to be a slut and Newt was available to help that come true. Marietta counts herself lucky not to have a father.
Jolene seems to be everything that Marietta does not want to be, completely dependent on men who treat her (and everyone else) poorly. The abusive tendencies that Newt and his father display are common to many of the male characters in the novel, as Kingsolver points out the damaging effects of a society that equates masculinity with violence. Marietta could have easily been in Jolene’s situation without the strong female role model that Marietta’s mother gave to her, unburdened by the demands of a father figure. Yet though Marietta acknowledges how close she was to this fate, she doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for Jolene, instead wondering why Jolene didn’t choose something better for herself than being Newt’s wife.
After the incident with the Hardbines, Marietta thinks that she is not cut out to work in a hospital. But as she tells her mother about the day’s events that night at dinner, she decides that she has probably seen the worst that will happen and might as well continue to work there. Marietta’s mother is immensely proud of her. Marietta comments that her mother was proud of everything she ever did.
Marietta rationally accepts this brush with disaster and does not let it keep her from the things that she wants to do. Her mother’s relentless and passionate support of everything that Marietta sets her mind to allows Marietta to develop the self-confidence to believe in herself and build a healthy mindset towards the constant threat of tragedy.
Marietta keeps her job at the Pittman County Hospital for five and a half years. But she has a plan to get out of rural Kentucky: saving what she can to buy a used car. Marietta’s mother insists that Marietta has to learn to change a tire if she is going to drive an old car. Marietta sees the sense in this lesson, and changes all the tires even though she is terrified that the tires will blow up just like they did with Newt’s father.
Marietta, though hardworking and ambitious, has to patiently plan to leave her home town in search of somewhere better. Yet Marietta’s mother knows that trouble will likely befall Marietta no matter how careful she is, and insists that Marietta learn to deal with disaster instead of allowing her to avoid her fears for now only to be caught by them at a later, more dangerous time.
Marietta finally saves up enough to buy the used car, and leaves Pittman County. As she does, she makes two promises to herself. The first is to pick out a new name. Marietta decides to name herself after the first sign she sees whenever she runs out of gas. Marietta pushes her car as far as it will go and rolls into Taylorville on the last drops of her gas. She renames herself Taylor Greer. The second promise Taylor makes is to drive west until her car falls apart and then settle wherever she ends up. However, Taylor reveals that she will break this promise.
Marietta’s renaming is the first step in finding her own identity separate from the stifling atmosphere of her hometown. While the name may seem arbitrary, tied to wherever Taylor runs out of gas, it is actually Taylor’s choice to keep pushing her car past cities that she doesn’t want to get to Taylorville at the last possible second. Taylor’s agency also plays a role in her promise to head west. Taylor actually keeps going past where she breaks down the first time in Oklahoma in order to make it to Arizona. Taylor may act like she doesn’t care about her name or her hometown, but she puts a lot of care into redefining those two things once she leaves Pittman County.
As she drives west, Taylor feels intimidated by the sheer size and barren waste of the Great Plain. The flatness of Oklahoma depresses Taylor, and her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere in Cherokee Nation. A man named Bob Two-Two is able to get Taylor’s car back into semi-working order, but Taylor knows that her car is too beaten up to continue. Taylor thinks about the irony of where she ended up, because her mother always spoke of their Cherokee head rights as a security blanket if things got really bad. These head rights are the land parcels given to any person who can prove that at least 1/8 of their blood comes from Cherokee heritage. Now that Taylor can see the land owned by the Cherokee tribe, though, she knows that her 1/8 blood rights won’t amount to much. Furthermore, Taylor sees the lack of trees in the area as a special offense to the Cherokee religion, which believes that trees are homes for the gods.
Taylor is intensely affected by the landscape around her. The barrenness of Oklahoma feels “dead” to her, due to the lack of hills and trees that she is used to from rural Kentucky. This unfertile wasteland was historically not wanted by American settlers, which is why the Cherokee tribe was relocated to this land. According to head rights, the legal award of Oklahoma land to the descendants of Cherokee Native Americans, Taylor should “belong” on this land. But neither Taylor, nor indeed many of the Cherokee, want to live in Oklahoma. Taylor describes this disconnect in spiritual terms, saying that the Cherokee religion requires trees. Though Taylor should have stayed here, as per her promise to settle wherever her car breaks down, Taylor moves on to a place that suits her better.
Taylor parks at a gas station as she tries to decide what to do with her broken down car, and goes into a bar next door. She picks out a postcard with two Native American women on it wearing turquoise and red, Taylor’s favorite colors. Taylor decides to send it to her mother. The only other patrons in the bar are two men in cowboy hats, one white and one Native American. Taylor tries to steer clear of them in case they’re mean drunks.
These colors, turquoise and red, are important in the Cherokee cosmology. Red traditionally symbolizes success, while the turquoise gemstone is the symbol of life and rebirth. Taylor may be down on her luck right now, but the presence of these colors suggest that she will survive this incident. Meanwhile, in the bar, Taylor’s innate distrust of men (especially drunk men) comes to the fore as she avoids even harmless looking men just in case.
At the bar, Taylor asks what she can buy for less than a dollar. The white man at the counter laughs and offers Taylor ketchup, but Taylor refuses to let him make fun of her. Taylor orders a cheeseburger and grows increasingly claustrophobic as she waits for the food to arrive. She notices a small woman wrapped in a blanket sitting at a table in the back. The woman is very round and seems wary of the two men at the counter. Taylor finishes her food, trying to ignore the ad on the TV proclaiming “1-800-THE-LORD” and leaves the bar before the atmosphere becomes too stuffy.
The woman in the bar reinforces Taylor’s distrust of the men, as Kingsolver suggests that even women who are strangers to each other are often bound together by their attempts to avoid dangerous men. The advertisement at the bar highlights the sense of tragedy here, as Taylor imagines that people tend to call on the Lord in times of need or struggle. Taylor, however, does not want to call this number, preferring to remain self-sufficient through whatever befalls her.
When Taylor gets back to her car, the small, round woman from the bar follows her. The woman shows Taylor a child that had been hidden in her blanket, and asks Taylor to take the baby. The woman says that the baby was her dead sister’s child, and asks Taylor to take the baby again, insinuating that one of the men in the bar is putting the child in danger. Taylor is reluctant, knowing that she left Kentucky to avoid becoming a young mother, and that she needs documentation in order to officially take the child. The small woman says that the baby has no papers because it was born in a Plymouth (i.e. a car); no one will notice if the baby just disappears.
Taylor is abruptly confronted with young motherhood, the biggest thing that she left Pittman County to avoid. The child was born in a car and left in a car, allowing Taylor’s car to stand in as the site of the child’s “rebirth” into Taylor’s family. Ironically, the car the child was born in was called a Plymouth, recalling Plymouth Rock, the landing site of the white settlers who came to America and eventually caused so much death and hardship for the Native Americans.
Ignoring Taylor’s protests, the small, round woman places the baby in the back seat of Taylor’s car and walks away. Taylor watches her go, realizing that the woman is in fact very skinny now that she is no longer carrying the baby. Taylor thinks about leaving the child with the bartender, but, as she is deciding, the bar closes and the bartender leaves. Taylor manages to get her car to start as well and drives off looking for a motel with the child in her back seat.
Taylor comments on the woman’s appearance before and after she is holding the baby to highlight both the burden and joy of motherhood. The woman is weighed down by the baby yet also seems healthier with the child. Her thinness when she gives the baby up suggests both freedom and starvation. Taylor, now stuck with the child, will have to find her own balance between burden and nourishment as a mother.
Taylor drives 50 miles with the baby in her back seat before she gets to a small town. Taylor hums and talks to the baby to try to keep herself awake. The child doesn’t answer. Taylor even starts to worry that the baby is actually dead, but is relieved when she notices that the child is alive enough to pee her pants. Taylor finally reaches a motel and goes to talk to the woman who owns the motel. Taylor tells the woman that she can’t afford to pay for a room but offers to clean if she and the baby can stay for the night.
Though Taylor did not want to be a mother, she already feels responsible for the baby’s well-being. Even though Taylor is exhausted, she stays awake until she gets the baby to a motel and promises to work so that the baby can sleep in safety rather than in the car.
Taylor goes out to the car to bring the baby in to the motel room and is surprised at the strength with which the child holds on as soon as she is picked up. Once Taylor gets everything into a small room, she decides to give the baby a bath. As Taylor starts to undress the child, she compares it to a mud turtle because of the amazing grip that the child and mud turtles both share.
The child is compared to different animals many times in the book, as Kingsolver points out the many ways that humans are just another animal in the ecosystem. This is not a way of demeaning humans, but rather Kingsolver’s celebration of animal kind and nature in general.
When Taylor gets the child undressed, she sees that the baby is a girl and that the baby has been sexually abused. Taylor has to throw up at the sight of the baby’s wounds, but the baby happily plays in the bathwater and smiles. Taylor finishes the baby’s bath, dresses the baby in a turquoise and red shirt for luck, and puts the baby to bed. Taylor adds one line to the postcard for her mother, saying that her “head rights” as a Cherokee have finally found her.
Taylor is confronted with the extreme outcome of the misogyny she has seen all her life: sexual assault of a defenseless, innocent baby girl. Yet though the baby has experienced the absolute worst parts of being a female, she is able to survive relatively unharmed. Kingsolver again evokes the Cherokee colors of success (red) and rebirth (turquoise) to say that this baby will indeed thrive. Taylor also references her family’s Cherokee heritage as the reason that she has found this Cherokee baby, as Kingsolver begins to cement Taylor and the baby as “real” family.