Susie describes a snow globe that sat on her father’s desk when she was a child. The snow globe contained a penguin. Susie worried the penguin was alone; her father reassured her by saying that the penguin has a nice life because he is trapped in a perfect world.
The narrator, Susie Salmon, opens the chapter by giving her name and the date of her murder—December 6, 1973. She compares herself to the other missing girls of the seventies—all of them are white with mousy brown hair.
Susie introduces her killer as a man in the neighborhood. She knew of him because her mother liked his border flowers, and her father once had a conversation with him about fertilizer. The day that Susie is killed, she is walking home from school through the cornfield in the snow. It is after dark. George Harvey startles her. He tells her he built something and asks if she wants to come see it. She tries to excuse herself to go home, but he insists and calls her by her name even though she hasn’t told him her name. At the time she thought maybe he knew it because her father frequently talks about how Susie tried to pee on Lindsey when Lindsey was a baby because Susie was so jealous. However, Susie’s father never told Mr. Harvey this story. Later Mr. Harvey even asks Susie’s mother what her name was while offering his condolences. Susie is outraged by Mr. Harvey’s actions. Susie’s intake counselor in heaven, Franny, is not.
Susie follows Mr. Harvey to the place he built. She notices he looks at her strangely, like other men have since she matured; but she also notes that men do not usually look at her like this when she is in her yellow elephant bellbottoms and her royal blue parka. Mr. Harvey has made a dugout beneath the earth, and he leads Susie down into it. Susie is really impressed by the hideout. It is a small room, with benches and shelves. The shelves have a mirror, shaving cream and a razor. Susie thinks this is odd, but she passes it off as part of Mr. Harvey being what her dad would call “a character.”
Susie jumps ahead a little, to after her death, after Mr. Harvey has closed up the hole. Susie is not able to observe her family until three days later, when she looks in at her mother, who is very pale. Her father, on the other hand, wants to help the cops find Susie’s killer. Susie is grateful for Len Fenerman, the detective on her case, because he is able to help keep her father busy.
Inside the hole, Mr. Harvey pressures Susie into having a Coke. He tells her he built the dugout as a clubhouse for neighborhood kids, but she knows he is lying. He tells her she is pretty, and Susie describes how he gives her the “skeevies.” She tries to leave but he blocks the exit and demands that she take off all of her clothes so he can check to see if she is still a virgin. She fights him but he overpowers her and undresses her. Susie thinks about her mother and how she will be wondering where she is. Mr. Harvey begins to kiss Susie. Susie thinks of her only other kiss, with the boy she likes, Ray Singh. Susie begs Mr. Harvey by saying, “Don’t” and “please.” He puts her hat in her mouth. Susie cries. Mr. Harvey rips open her pants and rapes her. Susie can hear her mother calling her to dinner while Mr. Harvey is inside her. When he is done Susie is surprised she is still alive, but she knows he will kill her. He tells her to get up. She cannot. Mr. Harvey gets a knife. He asks Susie to tell her she loves him. She does but he kills her anyway.
When Susie first gets to heaven she thinks everyone’s heaven is like hers. Her heaven has soccer goal posts and the buildings are suburban high schools, like Fairfax High where Susie would have gone the next year. Susie imagines that she would be beautiful and popular in high school, and that she would protect other kids from being teased. After Susie has been in heaven awhile she realizes that the other people in her heaven are people whose heavens have some of the same elements as hers does. Susie meets an Asian girl named Holly and they become friends. Susie describes heaven as a place where they are given their simplest dreams; whatever they desired, they got. What Holly and Susie really want is to grow up, but they are not able to experience that.
Susie’s father gets a phone call on the evening of December 9th from Detective Fenerman, who reports they found one of Susie’s body parts. Susie’s mother makes a list of all the things Susie carried with her in hopes that it will help in the investigation. Susie’s parents do not know how to comfort each other. Susie watches them as they try to console one another. She then looks at the cornfields where she knows there are rabbits living in warrens; sometimes, a rabbit will unknowingly bring home poison and all of the family will die in their den.
In the morning Lindsey asks what the phone call was about. Her father tells her they found a body part. Lindsey wants to know which body part even though she knows it will make her sick. Her father gets her a bowl to throw up in, and he tells her the Gilberts’ dog found Susie’s elbow; Lindsey promptly vomits.
In the cornfield the police begin a search for Susie’s body. They find the place where the dugout was, and dig there. They are disappointed they don’t find a body, but later they find out the earth has a lot of Susie’s blood in it. Neighbors watch from behind the police lines. The police find a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Mrs. Stead, the only neighbor left watching, identifies it as a book that is read in the ninth grade (Susie’s grade). The police inform Susie’s parents, but they refuse to believe it. Two days later, the police find Susie’s notes from Mr. Botte’s class and a love note written to Susie by Ray Singh. Susie never read the note because he had stuck it in her notebook the day she was killed. Ray becomes a suspect. The police soon realize he has an alibi, because he was speaking at a conference for his father that day. Susie is frustrated that she cannot lead the police to her killer. She also misses the family dog Holiday, but does not miss her family in the same way because she cannot accept that she will never see them again.
Len Fenerman comes to visit the Salmons. He delivers the hat that Susie had in her pocket; a hat handmade my Susie’s mother, with little bells and pompoms, that Susie refused to wear. Len Fenerman tells the family that the hat was used as a gag. He also says that there is too much blood in the earth, and they now have to work with the assumption that Susie is dead. Len Fenerman leaves, and each family member is in his/her own private grief; Susie’s mother sitting on the carpet over the hat, Lindsey standing stiff, and Susie’s father going upstairs and sobbing into Holiday’s fur. Buckley is with his friend Nate—when Nate’s mother comes to return him, she senses something is different and waits a while before bringing him back. Susie’s parents decide to call Grandma Lynn (Susie’s maternal grandmother) to tell her the sad news.
Lindsey decides to return to school in the one week left before Christmas. Mrs. Dewitt approaches Lindsey and asks her to go to the Principal's office. There, Principal Caden gives her his condolences, but Lindsey resists, asking him what exactly she lost. Susie’s recalls when Lindsey tested and labeled gifted, and how she felt she needed to live up to that label. Mr. Caden tells Lindsey that Mr. Dewitt is thinking of coaching a girls’ soccer team; Lindsey comments on how the soccer field is very near to where her sister was murdered. That night Lindsey goes home and does sit-ups, push-ups and bicep curls in her room, focusing on her breathing.
In heaven, Susie sits in her gazebo. She thinks about the picture that Buckley drew that was hung on the refrigerator hours before her death. In it, there is a thick blue line separating the air and the ground. Susie calls it the Inbetween, and she wants it to really exist. Because her heaven is filled with things she desires, there are a lot of dogs running around and she and Holly play with them. Mrs. Bethel Utemeyer, the oldest member of Susie’s heaven, plays a duet on her violin with Holly on horn. Susie calls this her Evensong.
Susie describes watching the earth from above, and seeing the souls as they travel. They stop and touch a living person before they leave the earth. When Susie left the earth, she was escaping violence and her path was not calculated. She touched a girl named Ruth Connors who was standing in the school parking lot at the time. Ruth tells her mother about the encounter, calling it a dream that was too real. Her mother just thinks her imagination has run wild. But when Ruth finds out about Susie’s death, she starts to investigate. She looks at pictures of Susie in the yearbook. She watches Susie’s friend Clarissa, and her boyfriend Brian Nelson. Then Ruth steals things from Clarissa’s locker—pictures of Susie and Brian’s stash of weed. Ruth gets high and mulls over the pictures.
Susie spends whole days watching people on earth. She watches the teachers at her school and what they do in their personal time, and she watches Clarissa, and Ruth. One day Franny finds Susie shivering—Susie is thinking of her mother. Susie remembers when she turned eleven, and she had just gotten a camera. She woke up early and was taking pictures of a neighborhood girl. Grace Tarking, and pretending to be a wildlife photographer. Then Susie noticed her mother; she snapped a photo of her sitting on the porch and staring into space when she thought no one was watching her. When Susie gets the pictures developed she realizes that that picture is the only one where her mother is really Abigail. She can see why Susie’s father calls Abigail "Ocean Eyes." While Susie is thinking about this, Lindsey gets up in the middle of the night and goes to Susie’s room. Susie’s room remains untouched, the bed still unmade. Lindsey finds the picture of their mother. Susie had never shown it to anyone else because she wanted to be the only one who knew about the “mother-stranger”, so Lindsey is surprised by the photo.
Susie used to help her father build model ships. He called her his first mate. Neither Lindsey nor Buckley were as interested in helping him build ships. On December 23, 1973, Susie’s father is looking at his ships and remembering Susie. He lines all of the ships up and then smashes them all. This crushes Susie, and without meaning to, she casts her face into every shard of glass. Susie’s father laughs deeply. Then he goes to Susie’s room with the intention of smashing her mirror and ripping her wallpaper, but instead he falls against the bed and cries into her sheets. Buckley finds him there. Susie’s father calls Buckley to him and holds him. Susie’s father remembers how Susie used to fall out of bed at night; he also remembers how once, a few weeks before she died, he found Buckley curled up with Susie in bed. Her father sees Susie in Buckley, and tells himself he should give his love to the living.
In the epigraph, the world in the snow globe is a supposedly “perfect world.” When Susie is in heaven she also refers to her world there as a perfect world, because she has all she desires. While viewing the snow globe, Susie worried that the penguin would be lonely; this fear comes true for Susie in heaven. Even though she is in a perfect world, she is trapped there without the company of her loved ones. This passage exemplifies the theme of isolation.
In Chapter 1, Susie, the protagonist and narrator, is introduced. We learn right away that Susie is narrating the story after her death as a first person point-of-view. She is an omniscient narrator, meaning she knows everything that goes on in all of the characters lives and in their thoughts. Immediately, the reader is asked to suspend disbelief and believe that there is an afterlife, that Susie is in it, and that she is narrating after her death. Even though Susie’s narration is omniscient, she is also narrating from the first person—thus, she is involved in the story and has her own emotions and motivations.
Even though the story is about murder, the novel is not a mystery novel. We are introduced to Susie’s killer, George Harvey, in the first chapter. Susie gives the context of the murder by giving the time period and the relative location of the suburbs, and noting that murders like this were not common. The rape and murder set the tone for the novel; all of the subsequent events and relationships are a result of the murder. While she is being raped Susie thinks of her first kiss with Ray Singh, foreshadowing the fact that throughout the novel all sex is overshadowed by Susie’s experience with Mr. Harvey. During her rape, Susie describes how she feels using simile—she is like a sea, and she also feels like she is being turned inside out like a cat’s cradle. By comparing herself to other things, Susie demonstrates that she feels as though she is not in her body. Susie survives the rape, but knows he is going to kill her. As if in acknowledgment of that fact, the knife that Mr. Harvey uses smiles at her.
Mr. Harvey’s affinity for both construction of new spaces and for destruction of life and evidence sets up a theme: construction and destruction are naturally equal and opposites, and they continue to oppose each other throughout the novel. The murder starts off the cycle of destruction, as Mr. Harvey kills Susie and cuts up her body and in turn Susie’s family begins to fall apart as they deal with the grief.
In Chapter 2, Susie describes how rabbits sometimes bring home poison and the whole family dies inside the dens; the rabbits serve as an allegory for what is going on in Susie’s family. The poison for them is the devastation from the loss of Susie; the grief is affecting them all and destroying them by pulling them apart. In addition, the recovery of some of Susie’s things, and of the one elbow, leaves the family in pieces as well—each family member is affected differently by the objects/body parts that are found, thus emphasizing the differences in their grieving. Susie’s mother is particularly affected by the hat she made for Susie—this is what breaks her. From that point on, Abigail acts numb to Susie’s death and begins to reconsider her role as mother. Lindsey does not talk about her grief with anyone, and when the principal at school tries to console her, Lindsey is cold. Jack feels extremely guilty that he was not there to help Susie, and he also feels the responsibility to help Lindsey and Abigail through their grief, but does not know how.
Chapter 2 also introduces the concept of the Inbetween as depicted by Buckley’s drawing; the Inbetween plays an important role in the novel, because it is Susie’s only way of coming in contact with her family and friends. Chapter 3 marks the first time that Susie is able to break the Inbetween—by casting her face into the shards of her father’s destroyed model ships. In the wake of Susie’s death, there is much destruction as the family is not yet ready to move on and build a new life without Susie; here, the ships are a symbol of that destruction. Later in the novel, Jack will again consider building ships with his grandchild, as he survives the grief of Susie’s loss.
Chapter 3 introduces the powerful effect that a photograph can have, a theme that runs through the novel. After Ruth Connors is touched by Susie’s soul, she gets to know Susie through photographs that she finds in the yearbook and in Clarissa’s locker. Even though Ruth was not close with Susie while she was living, she feels closer to her after her death by looking at photographs of her. Chapter 3 also includes a description of the photograph that Susie took of Abigail, a photograph that appears repeatedly throughout the novel. This photograph has the power of unmasking Abigail; when Abigail is not aware of anyone else around her, she is the person she was before she took on the role of wife and mother. Susie later refers to the woman in the picture as a mother-stranger, and the mysterious mother, because Susie does not fully know or understand this side of her mother. Both the pictures that Ruth looks at and the picture of Abigail are open to interpretation by the viewer. While the picture may reveal some new information about the subject, it is up to the viewer to decide what she is learning and seeing from the picture, because a picture can have a different meaning for each viewer.