Susie Salmon, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, introduces herself to the reader, and states that she was murdered on December 6, 1973—back when “people [still] believed things like that didn’t happen.” Susie’s murderer, she says, was a man from the neighborhood—an acquaintance of her parents who once talked with them about his garden, and gave them tips on fertilizing. Susie’s father joked that though their neighbor’s garden was made beautiful through his old-school fertilizing technique of making use of coffee grounds and eggshells, it would “stink to high heaven once a heat wave hit.”
By opening the novel with this rapid and stark revelation of the facts of Susie’s murder, Sebold creates a kind of radical transparency in the narrative. Transparency, and the lack of it—between family members, neighbors, and between the worlds of the living and the dead—will become a major motif throughout the book. The irony between the transparency of Susie’s reflection about her life on Earth and her family’s failure to see her murderer as a dangerous individual is also highlighted through the metaphor of his stinking garden.
On December 6, 1973, it is snowing, and Susie takes a shortcut home from school through the cornfield behind her junior high school. “Don’t let me startle you,” says a nearby voice: it is Susie’s neighbor, Mr. Harvey. Susie is of course startled, but she says hello anyway. Mr. Harvey asks Susie if she’s “the older Salmon girl,” and then inquires after her parents. Susie answers flatly that her parents are fine. She is “rooted to the spot” partly out of politeness and respect for the “natural authority” of Mr. Harvey’s age.
Because the reader knows that Susie is going to die, every moment of her initial interaction with her killer, Mr. Harvey, is full of heightened suspense. This use of dramatic irony—in which the reader knows more than the character within the story—creates a tension which Susie, as she narrates the rest of the novel from heaven, will repeatedly feel as she is unable to help, influence, or guide those she has left behind on Earth.
Mr. Harvey offers to show Susie something he has built in the cornfield. Susie, wary, tells Mr. Harvey that her mother will want her home before dark. Mr. Harvey points out that it is already after dark, addressing her by her first name. Susie, reflecting on this moment, wishes that she had realized how “weird” Mr. Harvey’s behavior was—she had never told him her name. In the moment, Susie says, she figured that perhaps her father had mentioned his children’s names to Mr. Harvey—her father was always telling friends and neighbors embarrassing anecdotes about Susie had her sister Lindsey.
Susie, reliving her murder and the events leading up to it from heaven, is angry just as much at the injustice of the crime as she is at her younger, more naïve self for not exercising more judgment and self-preservation. Susie’s desire to go back and change things is a fruitless one, but is nevertheless overwhelming and frustrating.
Susie reveals that in the weeks after her murder, Mr. Harvey will run into her mother on the street, and express his condolences to her for the “horrible tragedy.” From heaven, watching this exchange take place, Susie will still be “fitting [her] limbs [back] together,” and will remark upon Mr. Harvey’s audacity to her intake counselor, Franny.
As Susie, up in heaven, is still gruesomely repairing her body—which, this passage reveals, Mr. Harvey will soon dismember—she is overcome by feelings of injustice and desire to see her killer exposed, even as he attempts to hide in plain sight.
Back in the cornfield, Mr. Harvey promises Susie that what he has to show her will only take a minute. Susie follows him. After a little while, Mr. Harvey stops and turns to Susie, and tells her that he has made a “little hiding place.” Susie protests that she doesn’t see anything. She is aware that Mr. Harvey is looking at her strangely, but is also aware that since losing her baby fat, many men have looked at her in this way. Susie, from heaven, wonders why she didn’t do everything she could to get herself away from Mr. Harvey. Franny, however, reminds Susie that there’s no point in mulling over her mistakes—she must simply accept her death.
In the cornfield, Susie knew that something was wrong, but she was too tied to the desire to be polite and, in some small ways, the desire to know what Mr. Harvey would show her to do anything to rescue herself. Franny, Susie’s “intake counselor,” is a matter-of-fact woman who knows well the temptation to endlessly reflect on one’s past mistakes. She urges Susie to not get stuck in this endless feedback loop, but as readers will come to see, accepting death and moving on is not so easy for Susie.
Mr. Harvey squats down and knocks against the ground. He explains that he has built a wooden trapdoor down into the earth. At this point, Susie is no longer weirded out: she is genuinely curious. Mr. Harvey opens the door and takes her down into the earth. Inside, Susie finds herself amazed by the hiding place. She tells Mr. Harvey that the space is “neato,” and recalls being “completely reverted,” transfixed by the space. Franny, Susie’s intake counselor, remarks that Mr. Harvey’s luring Susie into the hole was “like taking candy from a baby.”
As Susie recalls how strongly her curiosity took hold of her, she stops for a moment, chastising her younger self for getting into a bad situation. In a reversal, it is now Franny, the cool-headed and simplistic intake counselor, who marvels at the unfairness of Susie’s entrapment at the hands of her neighbor.
Susie can still see the hole like it was yesterday, and, she says “it was; Life is a perpetual yesterday for [the dead].” She recalls the hole as being the size of her family’s mudroom—the ceilings were low, and Mr. Harvey had to stoop to fit inside. A bench and a shelf had been dug out of the ground, and a battery-powered lamp in the corner of the room provided light. She noticed a razor and shaving cream on one of the shelves, and remembers thinking that that was odd.
As Susie reflects on the “perpetual yesterday” of her life on Earth, the details are marvelously clear but maddeningly unchangeable. Susie knew that something was wrong almost right away once she got down into the underground structure, but once she was in there, her fate was already sealed.
By the time a neighbor’s dog finds Susie’s elbow three days later and brings it home with a “telling” corn husk attached, she reveals, Mr. Harvey will have closed the underground room up.
The injustice of Mr. Harvey’s getting away with literal murderer is underscored by the gruesome find of Susie’s detached elbow.
Mr. Harvey asks Susie if she would like a “refreshment,” which Susie thinks is an odd word to use. Initially charmed by the space, Susie is now beginning to feel frightened and out of place. Susie tells Mr. Harvey that she has to get home. Mr. Harvey tells her to “be polite and have a Coke,” insisting that the other kids would if they were here. He explains that he has built the underground structure for the kids in the neighborhood, so that they can use it as a kind of clubhouse. Susie feels that Mr. Harvey is lying, but she sees it as a “pitiful lie,” and feels sorry for the lonely Mr. Harvey. She accepts a Coke and drinks it.
As Mr. Harvey’s behavior becomes increasingly odd, Susie continues to make excuses for him. She feels sorry for him, and knows that he is a solitary man. She goes along with his instructions because he is both an authority figure and an object of pity—surely Harvey knew, when planning this evil act, that Susie would find herself beholden to both of those assumptions about him and thus allow herself to be tricked.
Mr. Harvey asks Susie if she’s warm in the room, and instructs her to take off her parka. She does. Mr. Harvey tells Susie that she is pretty, and she thanks him, though she is beginning to get a serious case of the “skeevies.” When Mr. Harvey asks Susie if she has a boyfriend, Susie insists that she has to go. “I don’t know why you think you’re leaving,” Mr. Harvey says, and blocks the way out.
Mr. Harvey is no longer escalating his control over Susie just intellectually or emotionally—he is now physically influencing her. As Susie makes her first attempt to leave, Mr. Harvey, knowing that she is already trapped, drops all pretenses and reveals that she is now effectively his prisoner.
Susie pleads with Mr. Harvey, but he instructs her to take off her clothes, insisting he needs to check and make sure that she is still a virgin. Susie promises him that she is, but Harvey tells her that he is checking on behalf of her parents, who only want “good girls.” Susie begs Harvey to let her leave, but Harvey tells Susie that she belongs to him now.
Mr. Harvey chooses to prey upon Susie’s respect for his “authority” as he attempts to trick her into sex, or at least into disrobing for him. All pretenses have been completely stripped away, and there is only raw, dark desire on Harvey’s part now.
Susie begins to struggle physically against Mr. Harvey, fighting as hard as she can, but nevertheless Harvey overpowers her, forces her down to the ground, and lies on top of her. Susie, frightened, thinks of her mother, knowing that she must be nervously checking the dial on the oven clock, worried about why Susie hasn’t yet come home from school.
Susie attempts to fight back and free herself, but the odds are stacked completely against her. Trapped though she is in this physically and psychologically isolating space, she still thinks of her family—foreshadowing the fact that even in heaven she will continue to worry about them.
Mr. Harvey begins kissing Susie, and she is revolted by his “blubbery” lips. Susie has already had her first real kiss, with a boy named Ray Singh from her high school. He kissed Susie by her locker the day that her class turned in their yearbook pictures, and when the yearbook came out at the end of the summer, Susie saw that under the fill-in-the-blank questions next to each student’s name, Ray had filled in the statement “My heart belongs to” with “Susie Salmon.” Susie remembers that when Ray kissed her, his lips were chapped.
Mr. Harvey’s gruesome assault on Susie is contrasted with the sweetness of her first kiss. Mr. Harvey’s lips are described as blubbery and wet, whereas Ray Singh’s were dry and chapped. Sebold perhaps uses Ray’s dry lips as a contrast to Mr. Harvey’s wet ones as a means of coding desire—Mr. Harvey’s dark impulses can no longer be held back and are overflowing, whereas the shyness and sweetness of Ray and Susie’s first kiss was chaste and awkward.
Susie begs Mr. Harvey to stop, combining the words “please” and “don’t” futilely and repetitively, until Harvey reaches into the pocket of Susie’s parka and stuffs a hat her mother had hand-knit for her—complete with tinkling bells—into Susie’s mouth. As Mr. Harvey begins to rape Susie, she imagines that she can hear her mother calling her home for dinner, announcing that string beans, lamb, and apple crumb cake are served.
Once again, Sebold shows Susie thinking of her family in a moment of extreme isolation. She is both comforted by the thought of them and further agitated by their ineffectual proximity. This foreshadows, again, her need once in heaven to continually check in on her family.
After Mr. Harvey finishes, he forces Susie to lie still beneath him and listen to their hearts beating together. Susie is shell-shocked, humiliated, and miserable, but amazed by the fact that she is still alive. In a “gentle, encouraging” voice, Mr. Harvey urges Susie to get up, but she cannot move. Mr. Harvey reaches up to the ledge where his razor and shaving cream sit, and retrieves a knife. Mr. Harvey removes the hat from Susie’s mouth and instructs her to tell him that she loves him. She acquiesces, but, from heaven, she states that “the end came anyway.”
After the rape is over, Susie initially believes that she will escape with her life. She wonders if perhaps Mr. Harvey’s desire has been fulfilled, and now she will be allowed to return home. However, Mr. Harvey’s desire is a deeper well than Susie could imagine, and as she begins to realize its depths, she attempts one last time to crawl out of it.