During his first few days in Chinook, Jack can tell that Dwight is studying him and sizing him up. Dwight calls Jack lazy and accuses him of thinking he’s smarter than anyone else. When Dwight decides that Jack has too much free time, he signs the boy up for Boy Scouts, gives him a load of chores, and instructs Pearl to act as a spy when he isn’t around, reporting on whether Jack is keeping up with his chores. Some of the chores are normal, but some are bizarre, like the “mean whims” of a villain in a fairy tale.
Dwight swiftly and meticulously takes control over all of Jack’s free time, using verbal abuse and manipulation to make Jack feel low about himself. Dwight also weaponizes his own children against Jack, foreshadowing the level of influence Dwight will come to have over Rosemary, as well.
Dwight has filled several boxes with horse chestnuts, and charges Jack with husking and shucking them. The husks are hard and covered in spines and bleed a juice which stinks and turns Jack’s hands orange. Dwight, though, will not let Jack to wear gloves while he husks chestnuts because he believes they look “effeminate.” Every night, Jack is made to shuck horse chestnuts, and the task takes him most of the winter. While he is shucking he is confined to the cramped mudroom, and as his new “siblings” pass him by on their way out the door or to the bathroom, they give him pitying looks but never sincerely offer to help. Norma is busy sneaking around with her boyfriend, Bobby Crow, and Skipper is hard at work customizing his beloved car. Pearl, meanwhile, hovers near Jack, clearly spying on him and reporting back to Dwight about his work ethic.
Dwight forces Jack to submit to the menial, miserable task of shucking spiny chestnuts simply in order to demonstrate his control over the boy’s life. Dwight can make Jack do anything he wants—and his calculated system of control, though transparent, is nonetheless effective.
Dwight arranges for Jack to take on a paper route, which he completes every day after school. Jack earns between fifty and sixty dollars a month, but Dwight takes the money from Jack as soon as he gets it, promising that he’s putting it into a savings account for Jack to use when he’s older.
Dwight controls Jack’s life financially, too, refusing to allow him to get his hands on any of his hard-earned money and thus take back a measure of control and agency.
Jack misses his mother, who, in the weeks since Christmas, has still refused to give Dwight a firm answer about marriage. She tells Dwight—and Jack—that she wants to be completely sure before she makes a decision either way. Jack understands his mother’s hesitation, but is growing frustrated with the fact that he’s only able to see her when Dwight agrees to drive Jack down to Seattle. In front of Rosemary, Dwight is always kind to Jack, smiling at him and talking happily about all the fun things they’ve done together back in Chinook. With “revulsion” for Dwight—and himself—Jack plays along, never telling his mother about the cruel treatment he’s being forced to face.
Rosemary seems to be waffling about whether or not to bind her life to Dwight’s but doesn’t realize that her reluctance reflects directly on Jack. Unable to control Rosemary, Dwight instead seeks to control Jack—and Jack, despite his hatred of the man, is forced to play along in hopes of convincing his mother to move up to Chinook and thus alleviate his own suffering. The complicated power dynamics between these three are intricate, and will only grow more so as the book unfolds.
At the end of each visit, Jack’s mother always pulls him aside and asks if there’s anything she needs to know about, but Jack always insists that everything’s fine. Each time Dwight drives Jack back up to Chinook, he always stops at the tavern and drinks. For the rest of the ride home, he drunkenly berates Jack for everything he does that is wrong.
Though Jack is suffering immensely, he refuses to tell his mother the truth of what Dwight is doing to him. His reasons are complicated, but a blend of escapism, desire to please, and having been beaten down by Dwight and forced to question even further who he truly is inside all contribute to Jack’s complicity in his own misery.
Once a week, Jack and Dwight go to Boy Scout meetings. Dwight, having been a “serious” scout at Jack’s age, signs up to be Assistant Scoutmaster for Jack’s troop. After the end of every meeting, back at the house, Jack has to sit and listen while Dwight outlines all of the things that Jack did or said wrong in the meeting—goofing off with other boys, handling CPR technique wrong. Still, Jack likes being a Scout well enough; he dreams of the day when he will make it all the way up the ranks and become an Eagle Scout. He enjoys reading Skipper’s old Scout handbook, and Boy’s Life, the official Scout magazine, which profiles particularly adventurous Scouts around the country.
Even a benign activity like Boy Scouts isn’t allowed to something fun and carefree for Jack—he is watched constantly by Dwight and is thus unable to feel secure in his actions or identity. Despite the pain he continues to suffer at Dwight’s hands, scouting does allow Jack to engage in some escapism as he fantasizes about the things he could see, achieve, and become through the Boy Scouts.
In March, Rosemary finally gives Dwight a date for when she’ll move up to Chinook. Dwight immediately begins renovating the house in a frenzy, painting everything in the house white—not just the walls, but the furniture and the piano, as well. A few days before Rosemary is supposed to come up, she calls on the phone and asks to talk to Jack. She asks Jack if he’s still feeling “good” about everything, and confesses she has been feeling low herself. She wants to make sure that Jack and Dwight are really getting along well. Jack answers that things are good—Dwight is in the room, but he figures that even if Dwight weren’t listening in, he’d give the same answer just to keep everything civil.
Dwight’s manic desire to redecorate the house entirely, painting everything (even the piano keys) a stark, blinding white, shows his underlying need to cover up the things he’s done to Jack—and, possibly, to his own children—and create a clean, blank slate for Rosemary.
Rosemary tries one last time to impress upon Jack that it isn’t too late to change their minds—if Jack wants to come home, Rosemary will keep her job and find them a new place to live. Jack says that he understands, but in reality, feels that all of his suffering is, in a way, “fated.” He feels compelled to accept Dwight’s home as his own, and to accept Dwight as his father, even though neither make him feel safe or happy. He feels that his mother should know that things have already gone too far—they have sealed their fates.
Jack has one last chance to tell his mother the truth—but he is, perhaps, afraid that even if he confesses what’s going on, he’ll still be stuck in the same situation; the idea that his mother would choose Dwight over him seems to paralyze him.