I could tell that Mrs. Winterbottom was trying to rise above some awful sadness she was feeling, but Prudence couldn't see that. Prudence had her own agenda, just as I had had my own agenda that day my mother wanted me to walk with her. I couldn't see my own mother's sadness.
This quote is from Chapter 17. Both Phoebe and Prudence shout at their mother, Phoebe because she thinks she is fat, and Prudence because Mrs. Winterbottom suggests coming to watch her at cheerleading tryouts. Phoebe's and Prudence's rude and dismissive behavior causes Sal to remember an afternoon shortly before her mother left when she snapped at her mother's repeated requests to take a walk. When Sal sees Phoebe and Prudence acting in a similar manner toward their mother, Sal realizes how blind she had been to her mother's emotions and point of view. Sal puts her realization in the vocabulary of the second message, "everyone has their own agenda." Thus, she demonstrates a real understanding of the message's meaning: every person is wrapped up in their own concerns and more often than not fails to see or respond to the needs and problems of others. To Sal, people are like pinballs, flying past each other, occasionally colliding, but more often than not remaining oblivious to the small kindnesses and quiet cries for help others extend. In her reflection on the Winterbottom household, Sal also displays her understanding of the first mysterious message: "don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins." This moment in another person's family helps her sympathize with her mother's emotions at that moment long past.
As I walked home, I thought about the message. In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter? I said it over and over. I wondered about the mysterious messenger, and I thought about all the things in the course of a lifetime that would not matter. I did not think cheerleading tryouts would matter, but I was not so sure about yelling at your mother. I was certain, however, that if your mother left, it would be something that mattered in the whole long course of your lifetime.
This quote is also from Chapter 17. Sal walks home from Phoebe's, having witnessed Phoebe's angry refusal of Mrs. Winterbottom's brownies, Prudence's rejection of her mother's offers of support, and the appearance of another mysterious message. Sal reflects on her understanding that people, like Prudence with her cheerleading tryouts and Phoebe with her lunatic, tend to blow many of their insignificant concerns and preoccupations out of proportion. She guiltily remembers the times she acted rudely toward her mother, realizing that the way we treat people on a day to day basis actually does matter in the long run. Her conclusion, that a mother's departure can affect an entire life, suggests that Sal may blame herself for her mother's disappearance and foreshadows the disappearance of Mrs. Winterbottom.
I could not imagine why she had chosen Idaho. I thought perhaps she had opened an atlas and pointed a finger at any old spot, but later I learned that she had a cousin in Lewiston, Idaho. "I haven't seen her for fifteen years," my mother said, "and that's good because she'll tell me what I'm really like." "I could tell you that, Sugar," my father said. "No, I mean before I was a wife and a mother. I mean underneath, where I am Chanhassen."
This is from Chapter 23, when Sal and her grandparents have just reached the Badlands, and, at last, Sal begins to reveal the details of her mother's decision to leave home. Sal, who points out that she learned these details "later," knew little about this decision at the time, which added to her confusion and sense of abandonment. In this passage, Sal's mother, so rarely named throughout the text, uses her real name: Chanhassen. Her desire to return to or rediscover her "essential self" indicates her feeling of being swallowed up or buried beneath her present roles and relationships. She experiences a sense of inauthenticity in these roles that saddens her, and that makes her feel, just as Phoebe's mother feels, as though she is leading a small or incomplete life. Her name itself, Chanhassen, carries history with it. The name represents her own mother's one act of rebellion and the name reminds us of her Native American heritage, which suggests, somewhat romantically, that her truest identity precedes and outstrips the strictures of modern society.
That night I kept thinking about Pandora's box. I wondered why someone would put a good thing such as Hope in a box with sickness and kidnapping and murder. It was fortunate that it was there, though. If not, people would have the birds of sadness nesting in their hair all the time, because of nuclear wars and the greenhouse effect and bombs and stabbings and lunatics. There must have been another box with all the good things in it, like sunshine and love and trees and all that. Who had the good fortune to open that one, and was there one bad thing down there in the bottom of the good box? Maybe it was Worry. Even when everything seems fine and good, I worry that something will go wrong and change everything.
This quote is from Chapter 27, when Sal reflects on the myth of Pandora, which Phoebe presented that day in class. First, she reasons that trouble surrounds us no matter where we go. No matter how perfect our lives may seem, we are vulnerable to the strife and potential for destruction that characterizes the human condition. Hope, according to Sal, allows us to go on, to live bravely and with relative happiness in the context of intractable suffering and sadness. Sal also learns this lesson at the end of the book, when she realizes that although she has suffered through a tragedy that will affect her entire life, life is still worth living and will still shower blessings down upon her. Then, elaborating on the Pandora myth, Sal imagines a box with all "the good things," but containing one negative emotion, worry, which has the power to neutralize all the good in the world. Both Sal and Phoebe demonstrate the effects of worry, which alters their perspectives and causes them to focus not on the abundant blessings in their life but upon their lives' one or two serious flaws.
I went barreling on as if it was my poem and I was an expert. "The waves, with their 'soft, white hands' grab the traveler. They drown him. They kill him. He's gone." Ben said, "Maybe he didn't drown. Maybe he just died, like normal people die." I said, "It isn't normal to die. It isn't normal. It's terrible." Ben said, "Maybe dying could be normal and terrible."
Mrs. Winterbottom has been missing for a number of days on the day Mr. Birkway's class reads Longfellow's "The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls," in Chapter 29. The poem describes a traveler who mysteriously disappears while walking along the seashore one night, an image that alarms both Sal and Phoebe. The students, illustrating the ways in which perspectives or "agendas" color individual interpretations, offer different explanations of how the traveler disappeared. Ben and Sal exchange retorts, each sharing their own understanding of death: Sal, who has experienced loss at a young age, stubbornly asserts that death is terrible. Ben, who sees more possibilities, suggests that terrible events are a normal part of life. By the end of the novel, Sal has accepted this interpretation, understanding that loss is an unavoidable part of life, but a part that does not have to destroy or permanently detract from the joys of life.