Two boys find the body of Chase Andrews next to an abandoned fire tower in the swamp on October 30, 1969.
On a hot August day, six-year-old Kya watches her mother leave the shack, wearing fake alligator shoes and carrying a blue suitcase. Kya knows Ma isn’t coming back, even though her brother Jodie, who is twelve, says otherwise.
While she waits for Ma to return, Kya remembers the bruises on Ma’s face, presumably from Kya’s drunk father beating her. Jodie distracts Kya with games, but Kya keeps watching for Ma.
Pa, a disabled World War II veteran is prone to violence. One by one, Kya’s siblings, Missy, Murph, Mandy, and Jodie fall victim to Pa’s beatings and leave home. Jodie tells Kya to hide from Pa and others who come to the house.
When they are out of food, Pa gives Kya a dollar a week to take care of herself and the house. Kya walks four miles to the Piggly Wiggly grocery in Barkley Cove. Three older boys on bikes, one of them Chase Andrews, ride recklessly past Kya on the sidewalk and Miss Pansy Price from Kress’s Five and Dime scolds them. One night, sitting on the beach talking to seagulls, Kya sees the full October moon and realizes that she is now seven years old.
The first chapter establishes a central theme of the novel: the trauma of abandonment. In the face of both poverty and physical abuse, first Kya's mother and then her siblings leave home. Jodie's early education about the marsh is a crucial step in Kya’s development, as she begins to appreciate the marsh as both beautiful and useful. When Jodie decides he must leave, he understands that Kya will be safest on her own. By telling her to hide in the marsh from both her father's rages and anyone who might come looking for her, the stage is set for Kya to lead a life of solitude and self-sufficiency. Her work over the course of the novel will, in part, be a journey of processing this early trauma and figuring out how to recover from it and incorporate the self-sufficiency she has learned with the ability to trust other people.
Kya's Pa is desperate to destroy the memory of their family's life, but Kya insists on remembering. After the other children have left, Pa burns all of Ma's things in a bonfire, obliterating the life that the family shared. This impulse is also present in Pa's alcoholism. The use of alcohol as an escape and a mechanism to forget is imperfect and misguided and only further serves to damage what little family he has left. The mere fact of Kya's presence is a reminder of what has been lost. Kya's efforts to learn domestic duties are a step toward some semblance of normalcy. She wants to emulate the mother she remembers as a way of keeping her memory close, even as her father wants to rid himself of the pain the memory causes him, to the extent that he is willing to irreparably damage Kya to do so.
Kya's first trip into town sets up the relationship between her and the town that will develop throughout the story. Though the town is only four miles distant, it is a world away from Kya's shack in the marsh. People who live in Barkley Cove look down on her with disdain, one chastising her for coming into the grocery store in bare feet. The dichotomy between life in the marsh and life in town is pronounced, setting up Kya's existence as one closer to the natural world than that of civilization. Her later realization that, based on the moon, she believes herself to be seven years old, further demonstrates her break with civilized society—a break that she will periodically attempt to repair.