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The next summer, Keith is back. Not quite fourteen yet, he looks much older than his age and now carries a pistol like his father’s. He has been living with a group of young criminals who can’t read and need Keith’s help figuring out how to operate the various devices they steal. When Lauren presses for an explanation of how Keith worked his way into that position in the first place, he explains that he killed a sleeping hitchhiker who turned out to have over twenty thousand dollars in his backpack. Keith shows no remorse. About a month later, when he gives Lauren a wad of money as a birthday present, she says she will give the money to Cory.
The next month, Keith dies and his parents are asked to identify his body. He was tortured to death. His eyes were burned out, but the rest of his face was left intact, and he was dumped where he would be found and identified—seemingly as a message to the family. The police wrongly infer that Keith’s parents know who the killers are, but there is nothing to confirm their suspicions. Lauren does not cry for Keith, as he had a sociopathic personality and she hated him at least as much as she loved him. The day for her to cry would have been the day her father beat Keith so badly. That day, Lauren now realizes, is the day their family was damaged beyond repair.
Robbery attempts in the neighborhood have become more frequent. During the last robbery, three thieves bludgeoned the elderly Mrs. Quintanilla to death before other family members killed two invaders and chased the third one off. Ironically, the money from Keith, acquired by theft, is now being used for victim assistance.
A well-to-do town not far away, Olivar, has troubles much like Robledo’s and is also threatened by coastal erosion. An international corporation, KSF, persuades a majority of Olivar’s voters to privatize the city. KSF will own the land, be the main landlord and employer, and be responsible for services and infrastructure. In exchange for increased security, residents will earn lower salaries and will pay rent to KSF. Cory and others in the neighborhood talk of moving to Olivar, but Lauren and her father know that historically, a company-town trick has been to turn people into debt-slaves by charging them higher rent than they can afford. Lauren’s father also says that Olivar won’t want Black and Hispanic people living there.
Lauren muses that in science fiction novels, the hero doesn’t join “the company”; he overthrows or escapes it. She starts making plans to leave her neighborhood when she turns eighteen. She will go north and look for opportunities to teach reading and writing. She has a working title for her growing collection of verses—Earthseed: The Book of the Living.
The Garfields, who are white, have been accepted into Olivar and will move soon. Joanne Garfield talks with Lauren while the two pick fruit, and says she still thinks Lauren is too pessimistic about the future. Lauren tells Joanne she will miss her, and Joanne says she’s sorry.
A few days later, Lauren’s father disappears on his way home from work. Groups of people from the neighborhood spend several fruitless days searching for him. The fingerprints on a freshly severed arm turn out not to match his. A group Lauren is with hears a man screaming in agony somewhere close by, evidently being tortured, but Kayla Talcott, her boyfriend’s mother, declares that the voice doesn’t sound at all like Lauren’s father.
In church the next Sunday, Lauren keeps the service from turning into a funeral by preaching an impromptu sermon on the biblical story of the widow who persists in her demand for justice until a reluctant judge gives in. Lauren encourages the congregation to persist in their search for her father. Privately, however, Lauren thinks that she just preached at her father’s funeral, and that the things she said aren’t really true.
Acquiring knowledge, and the power of knowledge, is a running theme that’s shown to be an essential facet for survival amid this bleak landscape. Lauren is acutely aware of the importance of knowledge. Her ability to extract as much information as possible from Keith, however shocking, will help her navigate the mean streets on her way northward. When Lauren gleans from him that survival is impossible without a firearm, and that killing and robbing is sometimes necessary in the world outside the neighborhood, it brings her to a moral crossroads. Yet she’s able to reconcile the moral quandary by justifying such actions only when absolutely necessary or in life-or-death situations. More importantly, she learns that Keith’s education, specifically his ability to read and write, is his ticket to surviving on the outside. But for Lauren, knowledge is to be used for a communal good, not individual gain. Keith’s eventual torture and death is a testament to that ideal while also signaling a warning for the family. His cruel end proves vital by demonstrating how not to navigate the outside world.
The class and economic divides are made evident through the government’s privatization policies, and scenes of capitalism run amok. Exploitation, enslavement, and racism are key components in this dystopian world exemplified in corporate-run towns like Olivar where low-paying jobs are supplemented by an attractive, yet dubious, veneer of education and security. Unwitting residents of such towns soon find themselves in a state of insurmountable debt, but racism also plays into the theme of economic disparity. Lauren and her father view Olivar as a camp for debt-slavery, one in which Black and Hispanic men and women wouldn’t be welcome anyway. For Lauren, such towns are to be toppled and overthrown. Amid all the realistically bleak options presented for the future, Lauren opts for neither and cheerfully (perhaps naively) looks to Earthseed not only as a religion, but as a socio-economic paradigm.
Radical change is being imposed onto Lauren, who must learn to adapt in the wake of personal loss. Following the death of Lauren’s brother and the presumed death of her father, Butler begins to poke holes in Lauren’s seemingly unshakeable and emotionally strong mental make-up. We see Lauren exhibit vulnerability, and express conflicting feelings, when Joanne Garfield and her family plan to leave for Olivar. The amicable parting ends with her hugging Joanne, a sure sign of forgiveness on the part of Lauren. This shift in attitude and open show of compassion provides a glimpse into Lauren’s changing personality and of the person and leader she aims to be. She channels her father, even assumes his role, in an impromptu sermon given to the congregation, all the while being incredulous of the Biblical verses coming out of her mouth. In setting aside her personal beliefs, Lauren adapts to play to the audience and gives them what they want to hear. While the sermon ends with an old slave spiritual, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Lauren is well aware that in the wake of her father’s disappearance, a move is inevitable and a change of scenery is crucial for survival.