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 lands.

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 sandals.

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 apple pie.

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.