Beginning with the End in Mind
Wait a second… we're starting with the climax in this one? Yup, Shmoopsters, indeed we are. This book opens with arguably the most important event of the entire tale: the death of Grace Brown. This is just about all we know, though, at this point, so the stage is set for the rest of the mystery to unfurl. Grace's death leads Mattie to recount her past, leading up to the moment of Grace's death and piecing together the details around it, while also sorting out her own path for herself. Now that's what we call starting out with a bang.
Not Exactly Laura Ingalls Wilder
A lot of the exposition is found in the flashbacks that come up for Mattie as she ponders Grace's death. Mattie is sixteen years old, the eldest of four girls in the Gokey family; her mother recently died of cancer, and Mattie has to shoulder many responsibilities on the family farm in Eagle Bay, a rural community in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York.
Mattie struggles to run the farm (her duty), keep up with her schooling (her passion), stay friends with her friends, cope with a childhood crush, and realize her dreams of going to college. In other words, Grace Brown's death might be the catalyst for the story, but it becomes significantly more complex as we get to know Mattie.
Oh, the Places You Won't Go
Mattie wants to go to college, but she can't. Oh sure, she got a high school diploma and a full ride to Barnard in New York City and all, but she made a promise to her dying mother to stay home and take care of her sisters. Pa's having a hard time handling the farm and coping with his wife's death, and Mattie's brother, Lawton, bounced, so there's that absence to contend with, too. Plus, Mattie's trying to figure out whether she wants to leave everything she's ever known—and a budding romance with Royal Loomis—or stay and give up her dreams of writing.
What Does a Girl Want?
Mattie's got these hopes and dreams, but she doesn't know how to make them come true, especially since life keeps throwing her curveballs—Royal Loomis, Mattie's crush, starts paying attention to her, plus Mattie feels guilty about the idea of leaving her family for college.
When the mule dies, Mattie goes to work at the Glenmore Hotel to earn money for her pa and for her future with Royal (instead of, say, to save up for school). And things only get harder when Miss Wilcox, Mattie's teacher, is forced to leave because of her husband, and then Mattie's family falls deathly ill while she's off working at the Glenmore.
In other words, as Mattie's story gets closer to meeting up with Grace's, our main girl's torn in a bunch of directions, with no idea what she really wants.
There are tons of little climaxes throughout the book. Take your pick which death is the most important one. All of the deaths lead to the real climax, which is the biggest one in the book.
The Death of Innocence, Part I
Grace Brown dies. This is the death that opens the book and sends Mattie wandering down memory lane, recounting the past few months of her life and revealing her terrible feeling of being stuck between helping her family and realizing her academic dreams.
The Death of Innocence, Part II
No one actually dies in this one, but Mattie realizes that Royal is only pursuing her because he wants land to farm, and he can get this land by marrying Mattie. We knew he was too good to be true, and Mattie had a hunch, but now she knows for sure. It's a bummer.
The Death of Innocence, Part III
Mattie realizes that Grace Brown was most likely killed by her beau, Chester Gillette (alias Carl Grahm). Considering how much thinking she's done on family and personal freedom, this is pretty much the last nail in the coffin holding Mattie's preference for companionship over realizing her potential.
The Birth of Hope
Mattie decides that she's not going to marry Royal, and that instead she's going to go to college. Sure there are some babies actually born elsewhere in the story, but we're calling this moment the birth of hope. Mattie fixes her eyes on her dream, and refuses to let anything get in her way.
Three Letters and a Broken Promise Later…
Resolute in her decision, Mattie leaves Grace Brown's letters on Mr. Morrison's desk. Then she takes the money that she earned at the Glenmore, and gives it to three people, explaining her actions in a letter to each of them. What's left isn't much, but it's enough to get her to life in New York City. Mattie visits Grace Brown's body and tells her that she's leaving, thus breaking the promise that she made to her dying mother. Mattie's tying up all the loose ends as she prepares to leave the only home she's ever known for the uncertainty of college and the big city.
Confident in the Big Apple
Well, sort of. Mattie still is uncertain of her path as she makes her way from her home to the train that will take her to New York City, but then she realizes that no matter where she goes, she'll take the stories of home with her. This is the closure and courage she needs to step on the train to her future.