David walks home with his knife in his hand, because the woods where Sophie lives are said to be dangerous. He sneaks back into his house, which was built by his grandfather, Elias Strorm. His house is the largest in Waknuk, the village where he lives. David tells the reader that he has since learned more about Elias, including the fact that he left his childhood home for Waknuk because he believed the people around him were immoral. Elias’ wife, described as “coltish,” was not as firm a believer as her husband. David tells us that his own father, Joseph, inherited Elias’ beliefs, and has dedicated himself to punishing those who break religious rules.
The fact that the reader doesn’t learn the name of David’s town until Chapter 2 demonstrates how small David’s world is. He does not need to explain that he lives in Waknuk because Waknuk is everything he knows. Horses are used throughout the book as symbols of freedom, and the fact that Elias’ wife is described as “coltish” suggests that there may have been others in David’s family who diverged from the norm. Meanwhile, the origin story of the town establishes it as a place that focuses on a strict interpretation of what is and isn’t moral.
David’s parents consider their well-built house to be a symbol of their strong morals, and his mother has decorated the house with proverbs from a book called Repentences. The quotes encourage conformity and emphasize the importance of purity. The largest and most prominent saying reads “Watch thou for the mutant!” David’s father and the rest of the town exert a great deal of time destroying these “mutants,” or Offenses, which David describes as “things which did not look right.” Waknuk has a reputation for Purity, and crops and livestock deemed impure are destroyed.
David’s mother covers the house with sayings from Repentences in order to reinforce their importance. These sayings make clear that in Waknuk normalcy is determined by physical appearance, and anything that looks odd should be destroyed. By hanging these proverbs all over the house, however, David’s mother unwittingly turns them into decorations that are easy to overlook and ignore.
According to young David, people who diverge from the norm—known as Deviations—live in the Fringes that surround Waknuk and the Badlands that extend beyond the Fringes. David has never been to these places, but believes that anyone who goes there will die from contact with the mutated crops and people there. Sometimes people from the Fringes raid nearby villages, and the people of Waknuk have formed a militia to protect themselves. David’s parents taught him and his two sisters to fear the Fringes by telling them stories of a grotesquely hairy man named Hairy Jack who eats children for supper.
The people of Waknuk feel the need to protect themselves from the Deviations because they are afraid of that which they do not understand. They also associate physical oddities with moral impurities, and believe anyone who does not look normal is therefore evil and frightening. Children are taught from a young age to fear new places and people and anything that looks unusual. It is implied that this fear of mutation stems from past nuclear war and radiation.