In the opening chapter, India Opal Buloni, the ten-year-old protagonist of Because of Winn-Dixie, meets her future pet at a Winn-Dixie grocery store. The dog, clearly a stray, has wandered into the store and infuriated the store manager, who waves his arms around and threatens to call the pound. The dog is oblivious to the chaos he is causing in the store. Opal feels a kinship with the animal as soon as she sees him, and claims him as her own in order to save him from the pound. When challenged on her claim, Opal calls for the dog and impulsively names him Winn-Dixie. He responds to her call and comes to her, and the two leave the grocery store together.
Opal takes Winn-Dixie home to her father, whom she calls the preacher. They live in the Friendly Corners Trailer Park in Naomi, Florida. The summer she meets Winn-Dixie is also her first summer in Naomi. Opal admires her father but feels distant from him: “My daddy is a good preacher and a nice man, but sometimes it’s hard to think about him as my daddy, because he spends so much time preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach” (13). As Opal walks home with Winn-Dixie, she tells him about her life and her relationship with her father. Although Winn-Dixie stinks and seems to have a limp, Opal already knows that she “loved him with all my heart” (14).
When they arrive home, Opal leaves Winn-Dixie sitting outside the trailer and goes in to get her father. Before introducing him to Winn-Dixie, Opal reminds her father of the Christian lesson to always “help those less fortunate than ourselves” (16). Although the preacher is hesitant at first, he exits the trailer to meet Winn-Dixie himself. The preacher contemplates Winn-Dixie, and he agrees with Opal’s assessment that he is less fortunate. He decides to allow Opal to keep Winn-Dixie.
Opal immediately cleans her new pet. As she bathes and brushes Winn-Dixie, she tells the dog all the ways that they are similar. Opal tells Winn-Dixie about her mother, who left when she was three years old. She tells Winn-Dixie that they are both practically orphans. Opal decides Winn-Dixie is trying to communicate to her that she should ask her father more about her mother, so when she goes to show her father her hard work, she requests ten facts about her mother.
The preacher tells Opal ten facts about her mother. Winn-Dixie sits between Opal and her father on the couch, and the preacher tells his daughter that her mother is funny, looks like Opal, has a green thumb, and is a fast runner. As he progresses through the list, the preacher slows. He rubs at his chin and eventually closes his eyes as he describes the woman who left them both. Fact number eight is that she hated being a preacher’s wife, because “she just couldn’t stand having the ladies at church judge what she was wearing and what she was cooking and how she was singing” (28). Fact number nine is that she sometimes drinks and can’t stop, and this would cause Opal’s parents to fight a lot. Number ten is that she loves Opal very much. Opal thanks her father for the information and goes to her room to write it down. She attempts to memorize it, so that she might recognize her mother if she ever came back.
The preacher and Opal quickly learn that Winn-Dixie does not like to be left alone. When left alone, the dog will make a mess in the trailer. When tied up outside, he will howl until the other dogs in the trailer park start to howl too. The preacher and Opal begin bringing the dog everywhere, even to church. Winn-Dixie listens to the preacher’s sermon without disruption until he sees a mouse, left over from the days when the church was a supermarket. Winn-Dixie chases the mouse with the raucous support of the congregation. When the preacher tells the congregation to pray, Opal prays for her mother. She asks God to tell her the story of Winn-Dixie catching the mouse. Then she asks God for friends.
These first chapters act as an exposition section in the novel, and they provide us with necessary information about the setting and the principal characters. Opal's bond with Winn-Dixie is both immediate and deep. Their friendship is an incredibly powerful force that gives Opal the courage to ask for information about her mother. Although he is a dog, Winn-Dixie is personified by Opal. He is friendly and rambunctious. When she first sees him, Opal describes him as big, ugly and very dirty. Although he is creating chaos in the supermarket, he is having an incredible time. He thinks that everyone wants to be his friend. He is compassionate—he licks the manager's face when the man begins to cry. Opal is able to interpret the dog's expression, which leads to an understanding between them that surpasses words. Opal's character shines through in how easily she falls for Winn-Dixie. Although he is a smelly stray, Opal immediately sees the good in the animal. She becomes concerned with his state and decides to do whatever she can to help him.
In this section, we are also introduced to the setting of the novel. The Friendly Corners Trailer Park is a unique place to live. Opal is the only child who lives in the adults-only trailer park. The only reason she was allowed to is that she is considered to be a polite, quiet kid. In many ways, the trailer park mirrors her relationship with her father, which makes Opal feel stifled and lonely. Winn-Dixie's loud and energetic nature sticks out like a sore thumb in the trailer park, but he encourages similar traits in Opal, and this leads to her happiness. At the beginning of the summer, Opal does not yet consider this place home. She calls her old town, Watley, home in her conversations with Winn-Dixie.
Another important setting is that of the Open Arms Baptist Church. The church is an eclectic place. Built in an old supermarket, the lively congregation sits on lawn chairs instead of pews. This strange set up makes the place feel "like the congregation is watching a parade or sitting at a barbecue" (32). It is this informal nature that allows for Winn-Dixie to be invited into the church. The congregation raucously supports Winn-Dixie's efforts when he interrupts the sermon in order to chase a mouse. Their welcoming nature and high spirits are the first indications of Winn-Dixie's power to win over the affection of strangers. The church is a symbol of community and proof that community can be found in the strangest of places. This is an important lesson for Opal.
Opal and her father have a complicated relationship. Opal knows that her father is a good man, but she feels distant from him. She calls him "the preacher" in her head because she identifies him more with his profession than with his identity as her father. She compares him to a turtle hiding in its shell, and she returns to this comparison often. Whenever her father is confronted with an uncomfortable emotion, he reverts back into his turtle shell and distances himself from his daughter in the process. The preacher is just as affected by his wife's departure as Opal is, but this has led to a situation where he won't talk to his daughter about her mother at all. The miracle of Winn-Dixie is that he encourages the preacher to "poke his head out of his shell" (18). He ignores his heartbreak long enough to give Opal a list of ten traits about her mother. Opal pushes back against his last fact, that her mother loves her. When she tells her father that her mother left her, he responds that she left both of them. Once again, he withdraws.