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Max begins by telling us the “unvanquished truth:” He didn’t have a brain before he met Freak. In fact, before they became “Freak the Mighty,” “slaying dragons and fools and walking high above the world,” it was Freak who did all the talking. Max much preferred talking with his fists and feet.
Max first meets Freak the year that Max moves in with Grim and Gram, his mother’s parents. He is four years old. Grim and Gram put Max, called “Kicker,” in daycare, hoping it will help him adjust to the death of his mother and control his temper. There, Max meets Freak. At two feet tall, Freak doesn’t look that different from the rest of the children. He uses crutches, and Max remembers wanting some of his own. Freak would call himself “Robot Man” and make weird robot noises scooting around the playground. One day he leaves daycare and doesn’t return.
Max picks up the story in the summer before eighth grade. First, we discover that he is L.D., learning disabled. Second, he’s growing so quickly he can’t fit into his shoes. Third, he overhears Grim and Gram (who call him Maxwell, which he abhors) whisper that he’s beginning not to just look like Him, but to act like Him. Him is Max’s father. And lastly, Freak, with his beautiful mom, the “Fair Gwen of Air," has moved into the duplex down the street.
Max hopes that by now, we (the readers) are paying attention to the story of how he and Freak became Freak the Mighty.
Max lives in the basement of his grandparents’ house because he likes the privacy there, By his own account, he doesn’t do much of anything. He’s under the near constant observation of a vigilant Grim and Gram. They fear the trouble he might get himself into at his age, which they consider a dangerous one. On this particular day, the first day of July, Max thinks about where he might find some firecrackers. Bored, he ventures out of his basement and into the backyard.
Through the chain link fence, Max notices a moving van a few doors down. A familiar-looking woman is carrying things from the van to the house. Max moves closer. When he sees a young boy that resembles his old friend Freak yelling at the movers, Max realizes he recognized the woman as Fair Gwen, from daycare years ago. Fair Gwen tells the boy, whose real name is Kevin, to go play in the back yard.
Freak sees Max. “Identify yourself, earthling,” he says to Max, who takes off running, back to his house.
Max escapes back to his basement after his encounter with Freak. He thinks about how Freak called him an earthling. Then he heads back outside and sees Freak swinging his crutches at the branches of a tree, trying to retrieve something that’s stuck there. Freak positions his American Flyer wagon under the tree and climbs in to whack at the branches some more. Max goes over to help, his effort to approach quietly betrayed by his big feet. He takes a plastic bird out of the tree and hands it to Freak.
The bird, Freak explains, is an ornithopter. Max decides that Freak talks like he came right out of a dictionary. The boys play with the ornithopter. Then, when Freak asks where Max lives, Max decides to show him. Max puts Freak in the wagon and pulls him over to his house.
The opening chapter establishes Max as the first-person narrator who is telling about the characters and story events from his own perspective. The text is written in Max’s voice and is conversational in style, very much as if Max is telling the story out loud. This narrative style allows the reader to understand Max’s thoughts and feelings about the characters and story events and provides insight into how Max perceives himself. But Max is also an unreliable narrator because he doesn’t always know or understand what other characters are thinking and feeling, and sometimes he guesses incorrectly. It’s important for the reader to keep in mind that everything Max describes is being filtered through his troubled 12-year-old mind and that his perception is not always accurate.
From the very beginning of the book, Max reveals hints that he doesn’t think very highly of himself. In Chapter 1, Max explains that he doesn’t think he’s very smart. In fact, he says he didn’t even have a brain until he met his friend Freak. Max's perception of himself is further complicated by overhearing his grandparents talk ominously about whether Max might be like Him. Although Grim and Gram don’t give "Him" a name, in the same conversation they imply that his father has done something terrible and wonder what Max might do while they’re sleeping. They appear to have concerns that Max could be violent, like his father, and it seems likely that Max shares some of their concerns.
Max’s description of his living area in the basement, which he calls the “down under,” and the time he spends there alone doing nothing, is significant as a symbol of Max’s isolation and loneliness. Although Max describes the down under as crummy and smelly and dark, he says he likes it there because he feels safe and unexposed. Still, he is periodically drawn up and out into the light, which suggests that despite his self-imposed isolation, he is hungry for something more.
These early chapters also introduce a theme related to appearances and the idea that a person’s outward appearance doesn’t always reflect what’s going on inside. Max is unusually large for his age, and he physically resembles his father, which makes him look dangerous, but he is actually sensitive, reflective, and thoughtful. After his first encounter with Freak, Max goes home and reflects on why his new neighbor called him “earthling.” Later, when Max sees Freak struggling to reach his plastic bird, he doesn’t hesitate to go help him. Max is very aware of Freak’s feelings, taking note of the sounds and body language that indicate how angry and frustrated he is. Max is careful not to scare Freak when he approaches him, and he handles the delicate plastic bird “real careful” to make sure he doesn’t damage it. He also checks to make sure Freak isn’t embarrassed when Max puts him in the wagon and pulls him over to his house. All of these examples go to show that Max is remarkably thoughtful and empathetic despite his outward appearance.
The ornithopter that the boys play with in Chapter 3 is an important object that reappears later in the story. Besides being the object that brings the boys together, the mechanical bird is a symbol of Freak’s mobility. Just as the ornithopter needs mechanical support to fly, Freak needs his braces and crutches to get around. But the ornithopter and Freak are both fragile in some ways and require a certain degree of care.