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.