Opal works as a mail carrier, and every time she gets into her mail truck, she can’t stop herself from looking at her wizened reflection in the rearview mirror and considering all the things she’s seen throughout the years. She remembers one time, soon after she’d adopted Orvil and his brothers, Orvil became spooked by his own reflection in a department store, and began to worry that he was a copy of himself.
Opal is haunted by her past, but she’s not the only one—even her young grandsons seem to have been traumatized from a young age by an unseen force which makes them feel like impostors in their own lives. Orange is using Orvil and Opal’s identity crises to highlight the difficulties both of them have in reconciling their cultural identities with their personal ones.
Opal never allows her mail route to become routine or automatic—a highly superstitious woman, she pays attention to every detail of her day, and is sure never to step on a crack in the sidewalk. She delivers mail on the odd side of the street first, believing in the luck of even numbers.
Opal’s reliance on superstition and hypersensitivity to what’s going on around her at all times speak to a nervousness within her caused by the traumas of her past.
As Opal looks back on her life during her long days delivering mail, she finds herself full of regrets—not regrets about things she’s done, but regrets that the things that have happened to her and her family have happened at all. When things get too heavy, she listens to music to or audiobooks to distract herself from her memories.
Opal doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself—but the constant threat of being bogged down by the pain and suffering her family has endured lingers at the edge of her consciousness at all times.
Yesterday, a message from Orvil stating that he’d pulled spider legs out of a lump in his leg rattled Opal. Though the message affected her, it didn’t surprise her—spiders figure largely in her family’s lore. Her mother, Vicky, had never let Opal or Jacquie kill spiders when they were young, stating that “spiders carry miles of web in their bodies, miles of story, miles of potential home and trap.” In this way, Vicky had said, spiders were just like humans.
Spiders have a deep significance within Opal’s family—spiders’ webs are both homes and traps, depending on how you look at them, and Opal’s life, too, has been a succession of situations which are both homes and traps for her and her family.
Several weeks ago, during one of her routine checks of all the boys’ smartphones, Opal found a video Orvil took of himself powwow dancing in his room. She was shocked to see how good he was—and the fact that he was wearing regalia given to Opal herself by an old friend named Lucas, whom she met while living in a group home. Opal and Lucas loved one another, but Lucas abandoned her to live in Los Angeles; she only saw him once before his death, nearly two decades later, when he came to her to ask for an interview for a film he was making about Urban Indians, and gave her his old regalia.
The unlikely and surprising connections between the novel’s characters are deepened in this passage, as Opal and Lucas’s long-ago love affair comes to light.
Last night at dinner, Opal did not tell Orvil or the other boys about the time when she, as a young woman, pulled spider legs out of a bump in her own leg—the legs emerged the Sunday afternoon before she and Jacquie left the home of Ronald, the man their mother had left them with after dying. Opal never said anything about the spider legs, not wanting to upset Jacquie, who was pregnant with a child she’d soon give up for adoption.
Ronald had been walking past the girls’ rooms at night, and Opal had taken to keeping a bat next to her in bed where she’d once held Two Shoes. One night, when Ronald came into the room while he thought Opal was sleeping and began grabbing Jacquie’s legs, trying to drag her from the room, Opal cracked him over the head with the bat, knocked him unconscious, and pulled her sister out of the house while the sound of the Indian Head test pattern blared on the TV screen in the living room.
As Opal relives the night she and Jacquie escaped a dangerous, abusive situation, she recalls the Indian Head test pattern mentioned in the novel’s prologue blaring on the TV—a physical reminder of the ways in which Native people, and women in particular, are both targeted and commodified.
The girls went to a shelter, and Opal constantly feared that she’d killed Ronald and would be in trouble. But as days and months passed and nothing happened, Jacquie and Opal grew estranged, and soon Jacquie disappeared. Opal began growing close with Lucas, and she eventually told him what had happened at Ronald’s; he agreed to take her back to the house to get some answers. After waiting for two hours across the street form Ronald’s house, Opal at last saw him pull up in his truck. Upon seeing him, she thought of the word Veho—a Cheyenne word meaning “spider and trickster and white man.”
The spider imagery, so important and symbolic in the lives of Opal and her family, is strengthened as she considers the dark side of what spiders represent. They are strong creatures who create homes for themselves and traps for their enemies—but their resourcefulness and trickery can be used for evil purposes just as easily as it can be for good ones.
Now, on her mail route, Opal gets lost in thought and doesn’t notice when she approaches the yard of a house in which a large, angry-looking pitbull without a collar is baring its teeth at her. Opal is stunned with fear, but the dog’s owner calls out to it from down the street, and it flinches and cowers. Opal feels badly for the dog, but hurries into her mail truck and drives along.
Opal’s memories are so powerful that they cause her to get lost in thought and put herself in danger—which perhaps explains why she tries to avoid lingering in the past, or sharing these stories with her grandchildren.