Ward’s female narrator, who goes unnamed in the first chapter, watches her family’s dog, China, give birth in her father’s shed, alongside her brothers. Narrating in the first and third person, she intersperses a present-tense account of the scrappy pit bull’s birthing process with memories of her long-deceased mother and stories of Manny, the boy she likes, from earlier in the day. Her older brother, Skeetah, acts as China's birthing coach and is protective of the dog's comfort.
From the start, the narrator compares China to her mother, who died giving birth to her youngest brother, Junior. Mama, as she calls her, birthed all four of her children in their Mississippi house, which sits on a property called the Pit. Like China and the narrator herself, Mama was a fighter, determined not to go to the hospital even as she hemorrhaged blood after Junior’s birth.
Originally, the narrator’s maternal grandparents, Mother Lizbeth and Papa Joseph, owned the land they called “the Pit,” named for the clay pits in the back of the property from which Papa Joseph allowed “the white men he work with” to dig for profit until it created a pond that he feared would “spread and gobble up the property” (14). Papa Joseph farmed on the property, but the narrator’s father, whom she calls Daddy, has allowed the Pit to become an overgrown dump. The space beneath the family’s front porch is always littered with empty moonshine bottles, the yard rotting with cars and an old RV. Junior often plays under the porch, a ritual that remains mysterious to his sister.
Although he is usually a heavy drinker, Daddy’s mind is on the hurricane now. As the narrator and her brothers watch China struggle to give birth, Daddy noisily nails plywood onto the sides of the shed to prepare for the storm, upsetting China, who hates him. Earlier in the day, as our narrator recounts, Daddy woke her and Junior early to join him in preparing for the hurricane, ordering them to find and rinse old moonshine bottles to fill with water later. Usually, hurricanes divert either east to Florida or west to Texas, but this one, according to meteorologists, is coming straight for Bois Sauvage, their coastal hometown.
By the time the narrator finally rouses herself awake, her older brothers, Randall and Skeetah, and their friends are playing a game of basketball. Manny is the first friend to join the game, but Big Henry and Marquise also materialize seemingly out of nowhere. Whenever the boys’ friends are too drunk or high to go home, they find places to sleep around the Pit.
Before the narrator even goes outside, she feels as if Manny is watching her undress through the walls. As she begins rinsing out the moonshine bottles in a nearby spigot, she daydreams, comparing herself to Medea and Manny to Jason in the story of the Argonauts, which she is reading about in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, her tenth-grade summer reading assignment. The previous summer, her grade read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. She earned an A in that class for answering the “hardest question...Why does the young boy think his mother is a fish?" correctly (7).
Distracted by her desire for Manny, the narrator shatters a bottle and cuts her hand. As Randall directs her to press on the wound until it stops bleeding, the narrator remembers how her mother used to give her the same advice whenever she cut herself.
Later, the narrator sweeps up the broken glass and walks behind the Pit to throw it away. With the rest of the boys occupied smoking weed near the house, Manny meets her at behind the Pit and they have sex, a secret ritual of theirs. Our narrator takes pleasure in knowing she is giving him both her body (she calls her vagina her “pulpy ripe heart”) and her girlish heart only because she wants to, whereas her previous sexual encounters with other boys have always been somewhat one-sided (16). She rejoices in knowing that she is finally becoming like the mythological heroines she admires, “making him hot with love” and totally in control (17).
Sporadically returning to the present, the narrator describes watching China give birth to five puppies, one of which is stillborn. Skeetah, who enjoys a close, almost romantic relationship with China, delivers each one, having bred China months ago with a prize pit bull from Germaine who regularly won in dogfights. The narrator recalls that China and the male pit bull looked like they were fighting even when they mated.
China retreats to the corner of the shed for her afterbirth, which she quickly gobbles up. The narrator notices something moving in the corner after China leaves; this turns out to be a puppy, the runt of the litter. Though Skeetah thinks the runt may die, he is happy to have another puppy he may be able to sell.
Skeetah urges his siblings to give China space, so they retreat to the house, where Randall watches Junior, who often avoids bathing, take a bath. Entering the room she shares with Junior, the narrator lies down in bed, imagining Manny on top of her, “like Jason” (19).
Throughout the first chapter, Ward invokes William Faulkner and the Southern Gothic genre both literally and in her treatment of the dead. As our narrator recounts the history of the Pit and her mother’s untimely death, she situates deceased characters, principally her mother and maternal grandparents, as persistent presences on the property much in the way that Faulkner does in novels like As I Lay Dying, which the narrator explicitly mentions having read, and Absalom, Absalom! When Randall instructs his sister to press on her fresh cut until it stops bleeding, for example, she sees a “glimpse...of Mama in his mouth,” describing Mama as one would a friendly ghost (12).
Death is a formidable presence at the Pit, where not only Mama and her parents, but also seven of Mama’s siblings, have died. Additional imagery of the Pit as an overgrown junkyard resting on unstable ground only supports these ghostly motifs, as the Pit, in both name and detail, has Biblical connotations of hell and damnation; after all, Papa Joseph halted work in the property’s natural clay pits out of fear that the pond the clay harvesting accidentally produced would “spread and gobble up the property” whole, a popular image of the Rapture (14). Overall, the Pit seems rife with supernatural and apocalyptic imagery, at once friendly and sinister.
For the narrator, the beyond-the-grave presence of her mother takes shape in the way she relates to her own womanhood and to China, as well. In the narrator’s youth, Daddy often compared her to her mother, describing them both as “fighters” as if fighting were an inherited trait. In turn, the narrator refers to China as a fighter while the dog endures childbirth, and later calls one of China’s puppies, a female dog that struggles to breathe once outside the womb, a fighter, as well. At times, the narrator even verges on personifying China by assigning her feminine traits, particularly in describing her relationship to Skeetah, who coaches China through delivery as a husband would, focusing on the dog “like a man focuses on a woman when he feels that she is his, which China is” (3). In this way, China becomes a proxy for the narrator’s mother, an almost human point on a continuum of femininity that extends from Mama all the way to China’s female puppy. These women are fighters because fighting runs in the family.
Fighting itself is a theme that the narrator feels intersects with love. When the male pit bull had sex with China, she says, “there was blood on their jaws, on her coat, and instead of loving, it looked like they were fighting” (8). Here, loving and fighting are fluid concepts, ones that the narrator conflates not only in recollections of China’s breeding, but also in descriptions of her sexual encounters with Manny, with the latter often mirroring the former. Just as China’s sex is bloody and impersonal, the narrator’s sex with Manny is rough and sensual, but rarely romantic—he does not even kiss her, but merely grabs at her body. By tying the narrator’s sexual experiences to those of a dog used for breeding, Ward enforces the idea that sex, birth, and death are intimately connected; in fact, the threat of their close connection haunts the narrator via memories of her mother’s death during childbirth.
At times, this gruesome take on sex and pregnancy seems to run counter to the narrator’s metaphorical treatment of floral imagery as a symbol of the vagina, which she again invokes not only during China’s delivery, but also during her own sexual experiences. “China is blooming,” she narrates, describing the puppy emerging from China’s vagina as a “purplish red bulb” (4). Later, as she allows Manny to undress and penetrate her, she narrates the experience using imagery of fruit, describing her vagina as a “pulpy ripe heart,” her clothes as “orange rind” (16). When Skeetah holds the runt of China’s litter, it “appears like the heart of a bloom” in his hand (18). Supported by the text’s intense preoccupation with color—particularly the color red—this symbolic link between flowers or fruit and the female reproductive system alludes to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, and in doing so, ties into larger themes at play in the chapter, such as temptation and portents of doom.
Of course, this doom mainly takes shape in the figure of the hurricane, with water appearing as a sinister motif. From the red-hued water in the pond behind the Pit to the bathtub that Junior fears, water is an element to be avoided by the characters, particularly the men.
Surrounded by boys, the narrator escapes by daydreaming about mythology, extracting its female figures to use as her role models. She, too, craves control over men, and often interprets sex and the male gaze as a source of power. This is particularly at play in her frequent allusions to the story of Jason and the Argonauts, wherein she envisions herself as the tempting sorceress, Medea, in an attempt to levy her femininity as a secret strength in a male-dominated world. After all, she is part of a long line of fighters.