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The opening of the first chapter describes the history
of Isle des Chevaliers since the laborers appeared 300 years
ago. When the slaves arrived, they were brought to the island to
clear it, and they disturbed the wild birds, the daisy trees, and
ultimately the patterns of the weather, changing the course of the
island’s river. The oldest house on the island is called L’Arbe
de la Croix, and it has a number of architectural quirks and is
compared in appearance to a hotel, everywhere except for in its
kitchen. But the home’s current owner, Valerian Street, fell in
love with it and bought it so he could retire to it from Philadelphia.
He still pretends to his wife, Margaret (also known as the “Principal
Beauty of Maine”), that they will return to the United States, but
when they came to the island, he brought all of his favorite things
with him, and he seems committed to living on the island permanently.
He spends a lot of time in his greenhouse, where he grows, among
other things, hydrangeas, a kind of flower that he misses from the
United States. Valerian has one friend on the island—a Frenchman
from Algeria named Dr. Michelin, whom Valerian met when he was suffering
from a toothache. The two men both feel like exiles from their native
One morning in December, Valerian’s butler, Sydney, serves
him breakfast. The two men have a familiar relationship, and they
banter about a number of things. Valerian asks Sydney to pick up
some ant poison when he is out shopping for the upcoming holiday
dinner. Sydney tells Valerian that Margaret expects Michael, their
son, to come home for Christmas, and Valerian says she is silly
and speculates that she must have been drinking. He also complains
that the house is starting to feel like the Thirtieth Street Station,
a train station in Philadelphia, because people are always arriving,
then leaving the house. Valerian then changes the subject and jokes
with Sydney that he should wear comfortable and climate-appropriate shoes
like sandals, but Sydney objects that he would be less dignified in
Margaret comes in wearing a wrinkle-preventing device
on her face called “Frownies.” She says that she thinks Ondine has
served pineapple for breakfast just to insult her and that sometimes
it seems like she is working for Ondine, rather than the reverse.
She requests mango, and Valerian teases her about how fattening
mangoes are and tells her that her breakfast is full of calories.
As they argue, Sydney waits on them. Valerian criticizes Margaret
for inviting lots of Christmas guests after he asked her not to,
and she says she hates the island and wants to accompany Michael
when he returns to the United States after Christmas. Valerian makes
her promise she will only go if Michael invites her. They talk about
Jadine and whether she will leave the island, then about how Sydney
and Ondine seem likely to stay. Valerian mentions that at the beginning
of their marriage Margaret used to spend lots of time with Ondine
and adds that he put an end to their close association on the grounds
that it was inappropriate. Margaret leaves breakfast announcing
that she wants a proper Christmas, and she orders Sydney to obtain
ingredients for an American Christmas meal, including apples for
In the kitchen, Ondine continues to cook while Sydney
reenters to serve breakfast to the Streets. Ondine is irritated
at Margaret for ordering the mango and for demanding an elaborate
Christmas menu. Ondine thinks only poor people eat mangoes, and
she thinks that the Christmas menu is impractical. Sydney tells
her he is tired of delivering messages between Margaret and Ondine.
She says she does not believe Michael will come, nor that Michael
loves Margaret. Jadine enters, and Ondine and Sydney are clearly
glad to see her. She asks for a hot chocolate and although Sydney
raises an eyebrow about drinking something so rich and hot on a
tropical morning, Ondine goes to look for some chocolate.
Ondine comes out of the pantry and announces that someone
has been stealing chocolate and refolding the wrappers. She praises Jadine’s
beauty and comments about how great she looked on a recent magazine
cover. Gideon, the odd-jobs man, arrives at the house but does not
come into the kitchen. Everyone in the house, including Ondine and
Sydney, call him “Yardman,” a general derogatory term for the poor
black population of Queen of France. No one knows his real name.
Gideon typically brings two women to work with him. The residents
of L’Arbe de la Croix always call these women “Mary,” for no one
has any interest in their real names either. Ondine is irritated
that she cannot give Gideon a written list of chores and errands
because he is illiterate, so she gives him an oral list instead.
She refuses to ask him for a turkey like Margaret wanted, but she
does ask him to get a Christmas tree.
The first few paragraphs describe the importance of Isle
de Chevaliers as a battleground for the conflict between nature
and civilization. Since the slaves arrived 300 years
before, Isle de Chevaliers has been transformed from a natural paradise
into a despoiled colonial habitat. This conflict has been waged
on the island, and although it is tempting to see culture as the
ultimate victor, the fact that the weather has become unpredictable
and remains uncontrollable suggests that nature is not so easily
vanquished. Though the river has been abused and battered, it has
not disappeared, and the swamp that has emerged from human violations
represents a lurking force of malevolence that can be put out of
sight but that cannot be entirely erased. The omniscient narrator
stresses that while nature can be injured, it cannot be eliminated.
The chapter’s opening description of the setting and surroundings
emphasizes how the island came to appear as it does, with civilized
additions like L’Arbe de la Croix. Here the narrator first describes
in epic detail the transformation of Isle de Chevaliers from a natural
paradise into a ravaged colonial habitat. Then the narrator moves
the focus in, to a single house, Valerian’s L’Arbe de la Croix, which
is described as a comforting place. The opening chapter also presents
the house as a significant setting. The fact that the house is set
apart from the other houses on the island by its age and quirky qualities
helps to set Valerian apart from the other inhabitants because he
is the owner of the house. This impression grows when the narrator
explains that Valerian has moved away from his native Philadelphia
and has chosen both to retire and to consider himself an “exile”—two
ways of achieving a divorce from the social world. The description
of L’Arbe de la Croix as comparable to a hotel makes the home seem
like it has an impermanent aspect to it and is permeable or penetrable
by the outsiders. This impression is furthered when Valerian jokes
that Margaret’s plans for Christmas make L’Arbe de la Croix feel
like a train station. The only part of the house that does not have
this transient feeling is the kitchen. As in the prologue, the preparation
of food is strongly connected with heritage and a sense of location.
Two black characters, Ondine and Sydney, are more connected to their
place than either the owners of the house or Jadine, who moves between
white and black worlds. L’Arbe de la Croix has a profound effect
on all the characters and the rest of the island.
Valerian’s greenhouse symbolizes the running conflict
between nature and civilization. The greenhouse represents the human attempt
to control nature and to shape it to its own ends. Valerian’s love
for a non-native plant, the hydrangea, displays a desire to be in charge
and control nature. Valerian grows the hydrangea in part with the
help of classical music, a cultural form identified with Europe
throughout the book. By selecting a specific type of music, Valerian
thinks he has control over how quickly his plants grow. In fact,
he makes sure that the music can only be heard in the greenhouse.
He keeps the greenhouse separate from the rest of the house because
he considers it his sanctuary, and only he can control it. Valerian
not only has control over the hydrangea in the greenhouse, but he
also has power in his household, implying that he has control over
both civilization and nature. On the other hand, Valerian’s inability
to control the ants in the greenhouse, and his need for poison,
suggests that nature is not totally under his rule.
The interactions during the breakfast scene showcase the
characters’ relationships with one another. The nested conversations
make up the action of the chapter—Valerian’s breakfast with Sydney
and then with Margaret in the dining room, and then Sydney and Ondine’s
conversation in the kitchen, joined by Jadine. There is a clear overview
of the relationships among all of the principal characters. Valerian
is in charge of the house but also permits a level of comfort with
Sydney that indicates friendship. With Margaret, he is intellectually
condescending and cruel in a way that establishes his dominance
and their previous class differences. Sydney is obedient to Valerian
but also willing to press him on things that he believes are important.
He is the ideal servant, both friend and aide. Yet Margaret barely
interacts with Sydney, a sign of her disconnection from the operation
of the house, and she is in conflict with Valerian from the moment
she comes down for breakfast. In the kitchen, Ondine clearly hates
Margaret, while Ondine loves Jadine. Ondine demonstrates her feelings
in the different ways she treats the two women’s requests for what
she sees as inappropriate breakfast foods: She looks for some chocolate
for Jadine but does not want to serve mangoes to Margaret. Jadine’s
sweet and slightly spoiled nature is demonstrated by her request
for hot chocolate in the Caribbean climate. The narrator portrays
these interactions to emphasize the characters’ feelings and opinions
of one another.