Warning: Here be spoilers.
In Chapter 1, our heroine Nancy arrives at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Recently returned to this world from the Halls of the Dead, Nancy is greeted by the eccentric Eleanor, and then placed in a room with rhyme-loving, hope-dashing Sumi. When she finds out her parents have switched the contents of her suitcase, Sumi steals her luggage. Nancy follows.
Character and Point of View
“The habit of narration, of crafting something miraculous out of the commonplace, was hard to break. Narration came naturally after a time spent in the company of talking scarecrows or disappearing cats; it was, in its own way, a method of keeping oneself grounded, connected to the thin thread of continuity that ran through all lives, no matter how strange they might become. Narrate the impossible things, turn them into a story, and they could be controlled.”
This opening paragraph is a great set-up to the whole story, both in terms of character and theme. Let’s focus on character for now. By the end of the passage we find out this is still Eleanor’s point of view. This thought is hers, and the description that follows is her narration of her own story. So we not only get a lovely description of the setting, this description is tied to character.
The advantage of having Eleanor open the chapter is that we get to have a good look at Nancy, our protagonist, without Nancy having to describe herself. It’s also a sign to the reader that we aren’t going to be deep in Nancy’s head all the time, so we won’t be jerked out of the story when the point of view shifts. Note we don’t get a description of Eleanor’s clothes until Nancy sees them. This makes sense because Nancy would note them, while Eleanor would not.
As we move on, we get to know these characters better, mostly through dialogue. Everyone has their different way of talking. Everything out of Sumi’s mouth is almost poetry, and I imagine all to be in that sing-song voice some children are wont to use. Eleanor at least makes sense, but she certainly rambles as well, and clearly confuses Nancy. Nancy talks the least. Because we’re in her head, we see that there is a lot that she is thinking that she doesn’t say.
Let’s revisit that opening quote, especially the last line: “Narrate the impossible things, turn them into a story, and they could be controlled.” That’s all well and good, but who controls the story? This turns out to be an important question, as the story you tell about yourself usually doesn’t match the story other people tell about you.
In this chapter, we see a few instances where the stories other people tell about Nancy, the assumptions they make about her, don’t fully match up to who she is, the story she tells about herself. The first, rather small example, is Eleanor being uncertain of her choice of room. She assumes that since Nancy went to an underworld, it must be a Nonsense world, but then notices the precise way Nancy handles her luggage and wonders if she might be wrong about that. Often when we meet people, we make up stories based on what we know, and those often turn out to be incorrect. This is also the case when Sumi assumes Nancy dyes her hair. In this case, Sumi touches a nerve. Nancy’s hair and the story behind it is important to her, and she gets angry about the idea that it could be any other way.
We see the real dangers of other people’s stories when Nancy discovers her parents have repacked her suitcase. Nancy’s parents have a wildly different story of their daughter – for them, she was kidnapped and returned as somebody they didn’t know. They view her changes as negative, whereas Nancy views it as finally becoming herself. As they are her parents, they have some power to enforce their story by switching her clothes out for ones they think are more suitable for her. This is hammered home by their note. They think she is, as Sumi notes, somebody else’s rainbow. Nancy’s parents think they have the right to decide who Nancy is, and they are going to do what is in their power to help enforce that. Will it work? Is that right? We’ll find out going forward.
Mystery and Plot
I want to use this section to talk about the murder mystery elements, and on the surface, there aren’t any of those in this chapter. I will just note that I don’t think it is an accident that Nancy comes from the Halls of the Dead. This is a way to highlight that death is going to be a large part of the story without shoving it in our faces. Likewise, Eleanor’s ‘joke’ that roommates might murder one another becomes foreshadowing in hindsight. It’s also a sign that many of these people don’t get along, thus hinting at the social dynamics that will cause some conflict in the coming pages.
Like any good first chapter, this one is mostly set up. It asks the big questions, introduces the major characters and their voices, and builds the world. Next time we will meet some of the other students here, and whether their stories are their own.