It is graduation day in the Five Lakes Colony of the United Commonwealth - what is left of the United States following an apocalyptic world war and assault of natural disasters. Malencia "Cia" Vale's mother helps her put on her red graduation outfit, as Cia wonders what her life will be like after today.
Along with Cia’s father, Cia’s mother, her oldest brother Zeen Vale and her three other siblings, Cia heads to the town square where the ceremony is being held. Cia’s father tells her how proud he is of her, mentioning that it doesn’t matter to him if she is not chosen for the Testing - the mysterious process by which young adults are selected to attend University.
During the ceremony, Cia’s father delivers a speech about the work his team of biologists is currently doing to undo the effects of the nuclear war on the plants. He unveils a new type of food that Zeen has developed, however he takes full credit for the invention himself. Cia notices Zeen is visibly upset, and wonders why her father would choose to hurt his son's pride.
Cia’s becomes nervous about whether or not she will be chosen as a candidate for the Testing, as it has been several years since anyone from Five Lakes has been selected. She looks around for an official from the capital, Tosu City, but she does not see anyone. The colony’s magistrate makes no announcement regarding the Testing, and the ceremony ends. Cia is disappointed and confused about what she will do now that her dream of attending University has been shattered.
Cia seeks out Zeen after the ceremony, and they commiserate. At home, Cia's mother tells her she must find a job immediately, and mentions that the local repairman is looking for help. Since Cia is mechanically inclined, Cia’s mother thinks this opportunity is too good to pass up. The man isn’t home when Cia goes to apply, so she spends some time alone in the town. Right before she heads home, a messenger tells Cia that the magistrate needs to see her immediately.
At the magistrate’s house, Cia sees three of her classmates: Tomas Endress, Malachi Rourke, and Zandri Hicks. There is also a man that Cia does not recognize. The magistrate introduces him as Michel Gallen, an official from Tosu City. He has come to take them to the capital for the Testing. Cia is excited that her dream has come true, but Zandri protests her candidacy. Michal informs Zandri that she does not have a choice; if she does not accept, she will be charged with treason and put to death.
Cia returns home to find that her father already knows that she’s been chosen for the Testing. Even though she is supposed to be having a graduation party, it is difficult to celebrate because leaving for the Testing means that she will probably never return home again. She notices Zeen leaving the party, and she knows why; Zeen wanted to be chosen for the Testing but was passed over.
The somber party ends quickly. Cia’s father takes Cia outside for a talk before she has to leave in the morning. When they are alone, he begins telling her about the Testing and how it’s not going to be anything like what she imagines. Though he can’t remember anything specifically because the officials erase the candidate’s memories, he and the other University graduates in Five Lakes Colony have reoccurring nightmares about screams, explosions, and deaths. After learning about the shared nightmares, the old headmaster of the school never nominated a student for the Testing again.
Cia’s father also mentions that he did not give Zeen credit for the biological discovery because he did not want Tosu City officials to find out that his son is a genius. As a last word of warning, he tells Cia not to trust anyone, not even people she thinks are her friends.
Cia goes back inside her home and begins packing her bag, choosing the three personal items she is allowed to take with her. After the talk with her father, her choices are not sentimental. She packs two sturdy outfits, a pair of boots, a pocketknife, and Zeen’s handy transit communicator that contains a compass, a calculator, and a communication system.
The opening chapters of the novel introduce readers to Cia and her post-apocalyptic world. Cia herself is a bright and capable young woman who has lofty plans for her future. She loves her family and her community, and she was raised to be familiar with the environment. Cia is also a prodigy when it comes to all things mechanical, so she loves to tinker with engines and technology. She has worked hard to become a candidate for the Testing, and all of her future plans rest on going to University.
The first chapter is filled with coming-of-age symbols and metaphors. From Cia’s clothes changing from pink to red to the hill that Cia must climb over to get to her graduation ceremony, Charbonneau makes it clear that in addition to whatever fantastical trials she will encounter, Cia’s journey will one of self-discovery and learning exactly what her morals and limits are. Though she is now an adult in the colony’s eyes, she still has a long way to go until she feels like one.
Though the reader doesn’t know much about what happened to the United Commonwealth, Cia mentions that her father and his team's work on fixing plants that were ruined from the biological warfare. The size of Cia’s class is also an indicator of how much damage the war caused. When a graduation class of fourteen students causes Cia to say that the colony is “thriving,” there must have been devastating losses during the war (2).
In the aftermath of the war, the United Commonwealth enforced strict rules dictated by what those in power believe necessary to rebuild society. The Testing is a microcosm of these authoritarian measures. First, the punishment for refusing candidacy for the Testing is a charge of treason and a death sentence. Although this punishment is not rigorously enforced, the fact that such a ruling exists signals the life and death stakes surrounding the Testing, and the extreme measures that are in place to quash any rebellion. Also, Cia's father's violent memories do not seem to add up, as she wonders what place explosions and death have in assessing future academic success. It is clear even before the Testing begins that the government that controls the process have ulterior motives.
Cia’s parents are important to her, though it is clear that Cia’s father has more of a relationship with Cia than her mother. Cia sees her mother as a woman who constantly fusses over her children and pushes them to be out on their own. Cia notices this practice with Zeen, and she feels rushed when her mother tells her to find a job working as a mechanic’s assistant just hours after graduation. While it is easy to view Cia’s mother through Cia’s eyes, taking an objective look at Cia’s mother shows that she is merely trying keep her children safe in her own way. She doesn’t know exactly what happened during her husband’s Testing, but she has seen firsthand the effect it has had on him. She wants her children to be productive and keep their nose to the ground, but not at the risk of getting noticed by government officials.
Cia’s father, on the other hand, knows exactly how to tread the line of being useful while also not being noticed by the powers that be. Though Zeen does not know why his father did not give him the credit he deserved at graduation, his father was trying to protect him from being a target of the government. This same love makes him tell Cia exactly what to expect over the next few weeks. He wants his children to survive in this post-apocalyptic society, and he does what he believes is necessary to give them the best chance possible.
These relationship dynamics mirror the typical teenage feeling of being misunderstood, and the limits of their perception. In this way, The Testing aligns with other dystopian young adult fiction in using fantastical elements as a metaphor for growing up.