We meet Eva Peace — mother, grandmother, matriarch. Deserted by her husband, BoyBoy, with three young children to feed, Eva is desperate. Having only a little money and a few beets in the kitchen, she leaves her children with her neighbor, Mrs. Suggs, and promises to return the next day. Eighteen months later, a vigorous and prosperous Eva makes a dramatic return — on crutches and missing her left leg — prompting the black community to speculate as to whether or not she intentionally threw herself under a train in order to collect insurance money.
Eva begins taking in boarders, stray children, and adults whose circumstances are fodder for the town's gossip mill. The mix includes Tar Baby, a troubled, alcoholic white man who is determined to drink himself to death, and three boys, all of whom Eva names Dewey. Eva's daughter Hannah and Hannah's daughter, Sula, move into the boardinghouse. Before long, Hannah begins to enjoy a sweet and flirtatious life. One by one, she collects the town's men as her lovers but never attaches herself to any of them.
After serving a stint in World War I, Eva's son, Plum, returns home. He is an emotionally wrecked, extremely thin and malnourished ex-soldier, a "shadow" who is now addicted to drugs. With the same ferocity that she summoned when she saved his life as a child, Eva burns Plum to death because she knows that he is a doomed, addicted adult: After rocking him to sleep one night, she douses his bed with kerosene and lights it. Her love for him will not allow her to watch him decay into a slowly rotting corpse.
Plum is clearly Eva's favorite child; even though he's an adult, she still refers to him as "my baby." She demonstrates such a deep and abiding love for Plum that when she saturates him in kerosene and strikes a match, we accept her heinous crime as an act of desperation born out of love.
In this chapter, there are several references to "top" and "bottom," and "high" and "low" that should be noted. In her house in the hillside Bottom, Eva resides on the top floor, directing the lives of everyone else below. When she sits in her wheelchair, a rocking chair fitted into a child's wagon, children are at eye level with her. Yet because of her matriarchal demeanor and regal bearing, adults who physically tower over her always feel as if they are looking up at her.
Eccentric though she is, Eva commands respect from the community. Her eighteen-month absence from her children remains an unsolved mystery, but whatever she did, seemingly it was for the good of the children. Respected as a woman who gets things done, her unusual penchant for taking in strays is peculiar, but it benefits the community's homeless. The community accepts Eva on her own terms, ignoring her disability and gossiping only now and then about it. Unlike Eva's daughter Hannah, who exasperates the women in town because of the number of their husbands whom she has sex with, Eva doesn't threaten the community even though she dominates people — whether it is during a spirited game of checkers, or renaming children, or deciding on matters of life and death.
earthen slop jar a large-mouthed, enameled container used indoors at night as a toilet.
citified straw hat The reference is to a straw hat worn for purely decorative reasons. Eva might have been able to forgive BoyBoy for having left her with three children to support, but his overly pompous return as a pretentious, quasi-sophisticated "citified" person makes her finally feel inferior enough to be able to hate him thoroughly.
a cat's-head stickpin In southern culinary slang, a cat's-head is a big lumpy biscuit, so BoyBoy's stickpin would probably be large and ostentatious, in bad taste.
the Courier The reference is to the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely circulated black newspapers at that time.
Garret . . . Buttercup brand names of oleomargarine, a substitute for real butter.
bent spoon black from steady cooking Plum is addicted to heroin; he buys it in solid form and places it on a spoon, which he then puts over a fire in order to melt it into a liquid. Because addicts are usually too shaky to hold the spoon with a pair of pliers until the heroin is liquid and ready for injection, they bend back the spoon handle like a Christmas tree ornament hook and then slip it over the side of a pan in order to keep the spoon steady.
dip-down walk a swagger-like gait, lifting the heels high and rocking for a split second on the balls of the feet before taking the next step; the walk was created by young black males in order to appear sexy and attractive to young women.
Liberty magazine a popular magazine of the 1920s and '30s.