Lauren admits that three years ago she stopped believing in her father’s God and church, but that because she is a “coward” she is letting herself be baptized into that church today. Lauren’s father is a Baptist minister who holds services in their front room every Sunday, thereby allowing people to attend church without having to go outside, where everything is “dangerous and crazy.” Lauren’s father goes to work once a week, but neither Lauren nor any of the other children go out to school anymore. For the baptism, Lauren’s father made a deal with a friend who is the minister of a church with a physical building just beyond the “wall.” Lauren’s father also once also had a physical church of his own, but it was destroyed.
The beginning of this chapter evokes a world in which people are trying to cling to a semblance of normality in the midst of division and destruction. Despite the fact that Lauren and her family live behind a mysterious “wall” and it’s too unsafe even to attend school, they make an effort not only to adhere to their faith, but also to engage in the rituals that characterize ordinary existence—such as going to a physical church in order to be baptized. This raises the question of whether clinging to normality is possible in the midst of so much change.
For the adults, going to a real church reminds them of the “good old days,” whereas the kids just like the adventure of going beyond the neighborhood wall. Lauren’s 12-year-old brother Keith is also being baptized, though he doesn’t care about religion (or anything else). He is the oldest of Lauren’s three brothers and the one Cory, their mother, loves best. He dreams of moving to Los Angeles one day. As the group travel outside the wall, they see people sleeping on the streets and a dirty, naked woman dart in front of them in a daze. They pass other gated communities, some of which are enclosed by walls made of rocks or trash. There are also people who just live out on the streets, and who now watch Lauren and her group closely. Lauren wishes she could have helped the naked woman, but knows it would be too dangerous.
Here we begin to learn more about what Lauren’s world is actually like. Keith’s desire to move to Los Angeles indicates that the book is set in the United States, although it is a version of the nation that most readers are unlikely to recognize. The naked woman and gated communities sealed off with rocks and trash evoke a decidedly post-apocalyptic landscape, in which ordinary people must barricade themselves from the wider world simply in order to survive. Indeed, it is this demand of survival that stops Lauren from helping the woman, even though she would like to.
They are in Robledo, a city 20 miles away from Los Angeles that was once “unwalled” and “green.” After Lauren’s father’s parents were murdered in 2010, he inherited their house, where he and his family still live.
Butler adds more details to situate the reader in this violent and divided post-apocalyptic world.
Meanwhile Lauren notices that the people outside the neighborhood gate often have missing limbs, open wounds, and festering sores, which makes it difficult for Lauren to be around them. Lauren’s father believes that she can choose to overcome her “hyperempathy” syndrome, and though Lauren admits that sharing other people’s pain is ultimately “delusional,” there is nothing she can do to stop it. Her father is ashamed of Lauren’s hyperempathy, as it is a reminder that—though he is “a preacher and a professor and a dean”—his first wife was a drug addict who abused a drug called Paraceto when she was pregnant with Lauren, thereby giving Lauren hyperempathy syndrome. Lauren’s mother died in childbirth.
Lauren’s parents are presented as opposites of one another. Whereas Lauren’s father is a distinguished and respectable person who tries desperately to cling onto a sense of dignity and normalcy, her mother was an addict whose drug use permanently damaged her unborn child. Yet this passage also suggests that in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy, Lauren’s father must live in denial about reality. He insists that Lauren is able to get over her hyperempathy syndrome, even though it is a condition she has had since birth. Although Lauren’s father is shown to be a good man, his denial of the truth is a point of weakness.
Hyperempathy involves sharing both pleasure and pain, but the people around Lauren rarely feel pleasure. Lauren enjoys sex, though as a preacher’s daughter in a tiny gated community, she sometimes wishes she didn’t. Along with Lauren’s brothers Keith and Marcus, there are four other kids about to be baptized, including Curtis Talcott. Lauren wishes Curtis weren’t there, yet resents the fact that she cares what he thinks about her.
Clearly, Lauren is very mature for her age. Having been raised as a minister’s daughter, she is highly critical of Christianity, yet equally does not reject it outright.
The church has security bars, “Lazor wire,” and armed guards. Lauren is baptized last and wishes she wasn’t going through with it. She reflects on people’s different ideas about God, and thinks about a hurricane that is currently killing hundreds of people along the gulf of Mexico. She considers all the people suffering and dying and wonders if it is a “sin against God to be poor.” Lauren’s neighborhood is getting poorer, as there are fewer and fewer jobs and more and more children. The adults say things will get better, but Lauren does not believe them. Lauren’s favorite book in the Bible is the Book of Job, where God seems like “a big kid” playing with—and carelessly destroying—his toys.
To Lauren, Biblical teachings about a loving God seem incoherent with the reality of the world around her—a world in which a church looks like a high-security prison. Her consideration of whether it is a “sin against God to be poor” emphasizes the extent to which justice is distributed along lines of wealth, rather than moral or religious virtue. Indeed, Lauren’s own experience reflects this theme of economic injustice; although she and her family do not seem to be especially rich, they at least have more money than the street poor who live beyond their gated community. In the world of the novel, having access to money is a matter of life and death.