Sophie Caco, age twelve, returns from school to the house which she shares with her aunt Atie in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti. Sophie feels slighted by Atie's refusal to come to reading classes in the afternoon, which all her classmates' parents attend. Atie never learned to read, having spent her youth working in the cane fields. She now considers herself too old to learn, and claims vicarious satisfaction in Sophie's education.
Chabin, the albino lottery agent, stops by the Caco home on his daily rounds. Tante Atie plays the lottery faithfully, although she has never won anything. She gives Chabin one gourde to play the number thirty-one, the age of her sister Martine, Sophie's mother, who lives in New York and whom Sophie has only seen in photographs and dreams. Noting a sudden sadness in her aunt, Sophie spontaneously presents her with the daffodil-decked Mother's Day card which she had made as a surprise for the following Sunday. But Atie refuses to take it, insisting that it is for Sophie's mother, and that she will accept a card only on Aunt's Day.
In the evening, the neighbors gather for a konbit potluck feast. Over ginger tea, Madame Augustin begins questioning Atie about a mysterious package from Martine which was delivered the day before. Despite Atie's evasions, it quickly becomes clear that Martine has sent Atie an airplane ticket and a cassette with instructions to send Sophie to New York. The gossips are satisfied and pleased, but Sophie is stunned and dismayed.
At home after the potluck, a tear slips down Atie's face as she looks across the road at the silhouettes in the Augustins' bedroom window. Sophie accuses Atie of lying to her about the airplane ticket, but Atie counters that she simply kept a secret that was too difficult to tell. As they get into bed, Atie begs Sophie to tell no one that she cries when she watches Monsieur Augustin and his wife preparing for bed. Sophie is silent, but she secretly slips the Mother's Day card under Atie's pillow.
Over cinnamon rice pudding, Atie begins to tell Sophie about her mother. She explains that Martine left Sophie with her, Atie, only for a little while, and only because she was going to a place she knew nothing about. Martine had always meant to send for Sophie as soon as she could, and Atie had always known her custody of Sophie would not be permanent. Now that the time has come to leave, Atie's great love for her sister prevents her from questioning Martine's decision. Atie tells Sophie how hard her mother has worked for the betterment of the family, and makes Sophie promise that she will not fight with Martine, with whom she shares a great deal. Finally, Atie lays the Mother's Day card beside Sophie's passport, insisting once again that it be given to its proper recipient.
Before Sophie leaves, Atie and Sophie make the five-hour trip to the remote village of La Nouvelle Dame Marie to obtain the blessing of Grandmè Ifé, Atie's mother and Sophie's maternal grandmother. Grandmè Ifé cooks a small feast, and the women eat together on the back porch before retiring to bed. Sophie, alone in a bed in her mother's old room, attends a recurrent nightmare in which her mother chases her through a field of wildflowers, waiting to dream that she will be caught before Atie can save her.
On the way back, Sophie asks Atie whether one can really die of chagrin, as Grandmè Ifé has claimed. Atie replies with a parable explaining that the amount of hardship that one is chosen to endure is a testament to one's fundamental strength.
Although Sophie narrates the novel, it is Atie who tells its first parable, at the end of Chapter 3. The incorporation of Atie's narrative within Sophie's is significant in light of Atie's illiteracy. As the book opens, Sophie exhorts Atie to come to reading classes, but Atie believes she is too old to learn. Yet Atie is able to communicate across a great distance, a privilege usually reserved for letter-writers, thanks to a clever system she has devised with her sister, Martine, Sophie's mother. Martine communicates with Atie via cassette, which she records and mails from New York so that Atie can listen, record and return. The practice of sending cassettes back and forth echoes the practice of writing letters, with one important difference: cassettes cannot be read privately while others are in the room. By construction, cassettes are public, their contents available to anyone within hearing distance. More generally, these first chapters are concerned with the privacy of narrative, the importance of secrets, and the necessity of a story's reaching its proper recipient. For example, Sophie feels intensely betrayed by the fact that the gossips deduce her coming emigration before Atie has had a chance to tell her. By contrast, Atie refuses to accept the Mother's Day card Sophie has made, insisting that its contents are not for her. Finally, Atie exhorts Sophie to keep secret Atie's love for Monsieur Augustin. All three cases expose an intricate awareness of narrative levels, of the secret intimacy of words, and of the many layers of knowledge, themes that are crucial to the novel's development.
Significantly, Chabin, the first man introduced in the narrative, is an agent of magic and trickery. He is an albino, whose physical absurdity and unnatural pigmentation evinces a broader connection to the realms of the unnatural and the absurd. At the same time, Chabin's access to the twin spheres of masculinity and whiteness set him starkly against the black women with whom the narrative begins, hinting at the dynamics of categorized power which the novel will explore. His job as lottery agent feeds on the hopes and dreams of the people, giving them a chance to hope even as he directly profits from their desires. Though he is not evidently dishonest, Chabin's trade, appearance and power combine to make him a kind of liminal figure, one who cannot be comfortably placed and thus not fully trusted. Yet the populace pays him faithfully, playing numbers as one might give tithes. Though she has never won, Tante Atie plays Chabin's lottery with a regularity that suggests she is placating the gods of luck rather than trying to tempt them.
Finally, the continually frustrated delivery of Sophie's Mother's Day card is an important cipher for the juxtaposition of Martine, Sophie's absent mother, with Atie, Sophie's beloved guardian. Though fully aware that Atie is not her natural mother, Sophie has made the Mother's Day card for her to express their de facto relationship and Sophie's great love. At the same time, Sophie has decorated the card with daffodils, which she knows from Atie are her mother Martine's favorite flower. Even in Sophie's world, the line between Atie and Martine is at times ambiguous. They are sisters who define and compliment each other through their presence and absence. Martine's absence appears to be a necessary counterpart to Atie's immediate presence, just as Atie's rescuing in Sophie's dream is made possible by Martine's chasing. This dualism suggests the novel's larger concern with presence, absence, and narrative doubles. For example, Atie's exhortation to Sophie to get along with Martine is supported by her contention that Sophie and Martine are extremely similar, implying that fighting Martine would amount to Sophie's battling herself. Atie feels Martine's absence in Croix-des-Rosets, while Atie's absence at the school reading group bothers Sophie. The palpable absence of other people is suggested most powerfully by Grandmè Ifé's threat to die of chagrin when her beloved daughter and granddaughter have gone.