The narrator begins by recounting events in her adolescence, when she lived in Pittman County in rural Kentucky and was known as Missy. Since then, she has changed her name to Taylor. (To avoid confusion, she is referred to as Taylor throughout this summary.) Taylor tells the story of Newt Hardbine’s father, who was inflating his tractor tire when it overfilled and exploded, throwing him to the top of a Chevron sign. The accident left him deaf. Taylor explains that she and Newt Hardbine look like brother and sister. Like the Hardbines, Taylor and her mother are poor. Taylor says that no one could predict whether she or Newt would be the one to “get away.”
Taylor continues to attend high school, and Newt drops out to work on his father’s tobacco field. He impregnates a girl named Jolene Shanks and marries her. Many girls at the high school drop out to have babies, but Taylor makes up her mind to avoid pregnancy. She credits her handsome science teacher Mr. Hughes Walter for changing her life, since he tells his class of a “real job” working at Pittman County Hospital. With her mother’s encouragement, Taylor applies for the job and gets it.
One day, when Taylor is working at the hospital, Jolene and Newt are brought into the emergency room. Jolene’s shoulder is bleeding from a bullet wound, and Newt is dead. From clues and insinuations, we gather that years of abuse and neglect from his father led Newt to shoot Jolene and himself. The horror of the scene makes Taylor vomit. Later that night she decides she will not quit her job, since she has survived the worst she will see.
With the money Taylor earns from her job, she buys a rundown ’55 Volkswagen bug and decides to leave Pittman for good. Her mother realizes that Taylor wants to leave and makes her daughter prove that she can change the car tires and tend to the car if it breaks down. As she drives off, Taylor (who at this point still goes by the name Missy) promises herself that she will change her name by driving until the gas runs out and naming herself after whatever town she happens to land in. She ends up calling herself Taylor because she runs out of gas in Taylorville. She also promises herself to drive west until her car dies and then settle wherever she ends up. She breaks the second promise when the bug dies on the Great Plains of Oklahoma, a vast expanse that depresses Taylor with its flatness.
Taylor’s car breaks down in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Taylor and her mother have “head rights”—that is, they have enough Cherokee blood that they are permitted to live in the Cherokee Nation if they choose. Taylor finds the Nation disappointing. Exhausted, she stops in a bar for some coffee. She picks out a postcard decorated with a picture of two Indian women on it, one of whom is wearing red and turquoise, Taylor’s favorite colors. At the bar sit an Indian man and a mean-looking white cowboy. An Indian woman sits at a table, looking cautiously at the men. When Taylor gets into her car to leave, the woman follows her and sets a baby down in the passenger seat, telling her to take it. She says only that the baby belongs to her dead sister and that Taylor should not go back into the bar. Then she walks away, leaving the baby with Taylor.
Taylor starts driving. She cannot determine the child’s gender, and it keeps so quiet that Taylor wonders whether it is alive or dead. When Taylor realizes the child has wet itself, she stops at a motel, where she persuades the kind woman working at the front desk to let them stay free of charge. In the motel room, Taylor gives the child a bath and sees that it is a girl and that she has been bruised and sexually abused. Taylor, shocked, almost throws up. She puts the baby to bed and writes a postcard to her mother, saying, “I found my head rights, Mama. They’re coming with me.”
The first chapter introduces us to the strong idiosyncratic voice of Taylor Greer. She uses slangy Southern language and describes the world in off-kilter metaphors. She also uses hyperbole and narrates in a gently sarcastic tone. A dependable narrator, she establishes our trust in her storytelling. The first chapter introduces one of the novel’s central ideas: the importance of motherhood. Kingsolver contrasts the effect of Alice Greer’s good parenting with that of Mr. Hardbine’s and Mr. Shanks’s bad parenting, suggesting that parents determine their children’s destinies. Because Alice constantly tells Taylor how wonderful and smart she is, Taylor becomes wonderful and smart. Because Mr. Hardbine abuses his son, his son kills himself. Because Mr. Shanks tells Jolene she is a slut, Jolene gets pregnant. Jolene acknowledges the direct effect of parents’ words on children’s behavior when she says, “[M]y daddy’d been calling me a slut practically since I was thirteen, so why the hell not? Newt was just who it happened to be.”
Taylor makes herself literally homeless when she leaves Kentucky, and she feels figuratively homeless when she reaches the Cherokee Nation. She had thought of the Nation as her ace-in-the-hole, her homeland, but to her dismay, she finds it depressing. She thinks Oklahoma and the Nation so disheartening that she breaks her own promise to herself, and instead of settling where she lands she spends most of her savings to get her car fixed so she can leave. By the end of the chapter, however, Taylor begins to rethink her own definition of home. She had associated the idea of home with a physical place, thinking of Kentucky or the Cherokee Nation as her homeland, but when she writes to her mother and says she will take her head rights (meaning the baby) with her, it suggests that Taylor is beginning to think of home as a connection with people rather than as a place.
Beginning in this chapter, Kingsolver portrays women as oppressed and mistreated. In Taylor’s hometown, pregnancy is depicted as a disease that spreads to most of the girls, a disease to be avoided with determination and luck. When Taylor sees that the baby has been sexually abused, she remarks that the baby’s gender “has already burdened her short life,” which suggests her belief that sooner or later, all women are burdened as the girl has been. The fact that Taylor immediately characterizes this specific instance of sexual abuse as a universal female experience rather than an isolated perversion suggests that Taylor and the novel itself regard women as besieged. The discovery of the abuse inflicted on the baby solidifies Taylor’s commitment to the young child. At first she does not know what to do with the child, but immediately after seeing proof of sexual abuse, Taylor writes her mother to say that her “head rights . . . [are] coming with [her],” implying that she now sees the child as an inalienable part of her.