Noah learns about beginnings from his grandfather's friend Tillie, who teaches him that filling a pen is not "preparation for the beginning but as the beginning itself" ("Noah".26). So, it's fitting that Noah answers the first question and tells us the first story.
Noah is a piece of work. Listen to the way he introduces his story:
My mother insisted that I write a B & B letter to my grandparents. I told her that I could not write a B & B letter, and she asked me why, and I told her that I did not know what a B & B letter was. She explained—not too patiently—that a B & B letter is a bread and butter letter you write to people to thank them for having you as their houseguest. I told her that I was taught never to use the word you are defining in its definition and that she ought to think of a substitute word for letter if she is defining it. ("Noah".1)
If you were Noah's mother, you would probably blame him for the decline of Western Civilization, too—or at least a few of your gray hairs.
There's a word for Noah: "pedantic." Or maybe "nitpicky." Or maybe just plain "irritating." If anyone says anything that he thinks is the slightest bit inaccurate—and we mean the very slightest bit—he is all over the mistake with his "facts," like the way he tries to prove that he doesn't owe his grandparents a letter: "Fact: I was not just a houseguest, I was family; and fact: I had not been their houseguest by choice because fact: She had sent me to them […] and fact: She, not me, owed them thanks" ("Noah".2).
And if Noah doesn't have a fact to bludgeon someone with, he goes out and finds it: "I must have heard him say [the word ironic] a dozen times, and I never knew what to say either. At first I wondered if that was because I didn't know the meaning of ironic. So I looked it up" ("Noah".42). Easy peasy.
So, aside from his pretty low-key conflict with his mom, Noah's story seems like no big deal. His parents aren't divorced; he's not living in the shadow of his family; and he's not an itinerant world-traveling East Indian who wears the wrong clothes to the first day of school. Compared to the rest of The Souls, Noah seems pretty ordinary.
He also doesn't seem like he has very far to travel on this metaphorical journey that all The Souls are on. If he's a passenger on a ship—whether a spaceship or a cruise ship—his destination is pretty close by.
What Noah Learns
But that doesn't mean it's not a destination worth reaching. What Noah learns is to be generous. At the wedding of his grandparents' friends, Noah problem-solves like a little fixer: He deals with the invites when they're messed up, serves as emcee, transports everything, arranges for a replacement cake topper, steps in as best man, and finds a way to get a version of a tux
One of those fixes—coming up with special prizes for the invitees who received cards marked with cat prints—involves Noah learning to give up the things he values. It's not easy. He has to "swallow hard" before giving up his new red wagon. But this act of generosity shows not only that he's a quick-thinking smarty-pants but a really good person, too.
We can tell that Noah went on a journey after all when he starts writing his B & B letter after telling his story. When he realizes that "a B & B letter is giving just a few drops back to the bottle" ("Noah"), it's also like he realizes that the point of writing a B & B letter isn't because your mom makes you but because you're giving something back. It's an act of being gracious and kind. It's what makes him a Soul.
Remember that when Mrs. Olinski sees The Souls at tea, she notices that they listen to each other "sympathetically, unselfishly," and that they're "courteous" (5.36). Noah might have the least to learn, but his lesson is the most important. In a way, his short, funny story gets us into the right frame of mind to read the rest of the book: relaxed, appreciative, and open.Timeline