Summary and Analysis
Landon, a senior in high school in 1958, describes Beaufort, North Carolina, as a typical, small, Southern town, in which churches — particularly Baptist churches — play a significant role. The church where Landon and his family attend, Southern Baptist, in collaboration with Beaufort High School, presents a Christmas play each year at the local playhouse. The Christmas Angel, penned by the minister of Southern Baptist, Hegbert Sullivan, is a largely autobiographical story that parallels the life of the minister: A man's wife dies during childbirth, and he has to raise his daughter on his own, in spite of overwhelming grief. In the play, the father, Tom Thornton, searches desperately to buy a particular music box for his daughter, whom he has kept at arm's length because of his grief. While on an unsuccessful shopping trip to locate the music box, Tom meets a beautiful angel, who encourages him to be a better father; the music box then miraculously appears under the tree on Christmas morning. The play is popular in Beaufort, playing to packed houses in spite of the amateur cast, drawn from seniors at the high school.
As the younger Landon narrates, he also describes his father, Worth Carter, a popular, well-known U.S. congressman who lives much of his life in Washington, D.C. Worth Carter and Reverend Sullivan do not see eye to eye, partly because Congressman Carter is less tenacious than Reverend Sullivan would like him to be in hunting down communist influences and sympathizers, but also because Landon's grandfather was a bootlegger and banker, who charged such exorbitant interest rates during the Great Depression that most of his customers lost their homes and businesses to him when they became unable to make their payments. Reverend Sullivan, who once worked for Grandfather Carter, quit his job and joined the ministry, but he still harbors resentment and anger over Carter's behavior.
Like the protagonist in The Christmas Angel, Hegbert Sullivan's much-younger wife died in childbirth, leaving the minister to raise his daughter, Jamie, on his own. In 1958, the year in which Landon is narrating the story, Jamie is a senior in high school, and she is cast as the angel in the play. Landon finds himself in drama class with the plain, devout, Bible-carrying Jamie, who is not only a model student but also a model person: kind; selfless; gentle; cheerful; and always deeply concerned with the welfare of anyone less fortunate than she. Jamie is adored by the adults in Beaufort but not befriended by any of the students, both because of her drab clothing and plain appearance and because her near-perfect behavior reflects poorly on the rest of the student body.
At the end of the chapter, Landon considers the number of years he has known (and mostly avoided) Jamie, and he is shocked, after all that time, to discover that she is developing a woman's body that, along with a summer tan from Bible school, makes her appear almost pretty in Landon's eyes.
Chapter 1 evokes all the classic images of a small, Southern town in the 1950s. People wave to each other; the natural beauty surrounding the town is enjoyed and appreciated; and churches dominate town life.
In this town, even teenagers understand that hurting someone is impolite: "Gossip is one thing," Landon says, "hurtful gossip is completely another, and even in high school we weren't that mean."
Sparks sets this story in 1958, perhaps partly because the idea of requiring seniors in a drama class to participate in a Christian play may not be possible today, even in the rural or coastal South. Increased religious diversity, coupled with a more rigorous separation of church and state, may result today in a legal challenge to a play such as this one. But in Beaufort in 1958, with Christian churches central to the town and non-Christian religious practices barely visible, the concept is plausible.
Landon's description of the Reverend Hegbert Sullivan's fixation with "fornicators" both adds levity and establishes Reverend Sullivan as an old-school, conservative Baptist minister. When Reverend Sullivan's daughter, Jamie, is introduced later, her own piousness is perfectly believable, in light of Reverend Sullivan's fire-and-brimstone sermons. Landon's recounting of his experiences with Hegbert also establishes Jamie's father's dislike of — or at least, concern over the eternal soul of — Landon himself.
Landon spends time in his narrative summarizing the plot of The Christmas Angel, and his summation is important for three reasons. First, it foreshadows Hegbert's and Jamie's unique relationship, which is described later in the chapter. Hegbert's much-younger wife died in childbirth, after six miscarriages, and Hegbert, who had been a bachelor for many years, was left to raise a daughter alone. Second, it sets the stage for Landon's involvement in the play, without which Landon's and Jamie's relationship does not have the chance to blossom. Finally, Landon's discussion of the play gives him a chance to describe Jamie Sullivan, who Landon has known his entire life.
Through Landon's eyes, readers get a close-up description of Jamie's physical, social, and spiritual makeup, none of which are appealing to Landon in the early chapters of the novel. Landon finds Jamie odd because of her plain appearance — no makeup; hair pulled back into a bun; librarian-like clothing; constant presence of a Bible in one arm — but perhaps more important, Landon is appalled by Jamie's lack of social aspirations. Instead of spending her time as most teenagers do, hanging out with friends, dating, and shopping, Jamie chooses to spend her time in religious study and in social activism.
Jamie not only helps anyone in need but also does so with openness, compassion, and cheerfulness. She is not looking to score points or impress people; instead, Jamie is the real deal, and she simply isn't interested in any activity that does not help others. This last set of traits irritates Landon the most: Jamie's goodness creates a model of behavior that no other student, particularly Landon, feels he can meet. Jamie's goodness will eventually become a trait to which Landon aspires, but first he has to notice her as a young woman. On the first day of their senior year, Landon does indeed notice Jamie in a new way, finding her "almost pretty," and that observation sets the stage both for their relationship to blossom and for Landon's personal transformation that occurs over the course of the novel.
Sparks takes a risk with Jamie's character: Jamie has the potential to be too good, too perfect — an unbelievable character with whom readers cannot connect. But Sparks succeeds in making Jamie believable by making her perfect only in her goodness. If she were also a socialite, a star athlete, or a great beauty, Jamie's character would have crossed the line into the unbelievable. But a dowdy, motherless outcast, whose father is a minister, has enough perceived flaws to succeed as a believable character.
Chapter 1 contains two other important elements. First is the segue that Landon makes into his own ancestry, discussing both his father (the congressman) and his grandfather (the near-criminal mastermind, who robbed the poor of their meager savings during the Depression). Congressman Worth Carter, who spends most of his time in Washington, D.C., is estranged from his son to the point that Landon's best friend commented years ago that he did not realize Landon even had a father. Worth Carter, therefore, acts as an interesting foil to Hegbert Sullivan, whose entire life revolves around his daughter. Indeed, by the end of the novel, Worth and Landon mend their relationship, with Hegbert and Jamie serving as their models. Likewise, the eldest Carter serves as a foil to Jamie: Grandfather Carter cruelly takes advantage of those in the most need, while Jamie cheerfully serves that same constituency. Landon has to choose which path to follow, and Jamie offers a new model from which Landon can break from his past.
Second, Chapter 1 establishes the voice of Landon as that of an immature teenager, thus establishing a starting point for Landon's character, who comes of age as a result of the events of 1958. Landon's character in Chapter 1 is only observing, not participating in or connecting to the events around him, so he blithely offers commentary on others, but no self-awareness. The language is also younger than that in the Prologue, using instances such as, "Life, I've learned, is never fair" and "if you know what I mean" and "But I digress." The tone is sarcastic, immature, and distant, yet as Landon's character matures, mellows, and connects, so does Landon's voice.
A Christmas Carol a play by Charles Dickens in which a greedy, miserly, unhappy man is visited by three ghosts, who encourage him to change his life.
Fornicator a person who engages in premarital sex.
Blackbeard the pirate a notorious pirate during the late 17th- and early 18th- centuries, who plundered ships in the waterways around the Carolinas.
communism the system of government in the now-defunct Soviet Union, in which a single party holds all power, and wealth and property are divided equally among the people.
Cold War tensions and hostility between the former Soviet Union and the United States, beginning after World War II, that never erupted into outright war but was often on the brink of it.
bun hair gathered up at the back or on top of the head.
How did the idea for A Walk to Remember come to you?
After writing two novels (The Notebook, with characters in their 20s and 80s, and Message in a Bottle, with characters in their 20s and 30s), I thought it was important to write a novel that included neither young adults nor mature adults. Hence, I decided to write a novel about teenagers, and the theme of first love sprang from that.
That said, the novel was inspired in many ways by my sister. I modeled many aspects of Jamie's character on my sister Dana, and portions of the story were drawn from her life as well. Like Jamie, my sister was religious, kind and seemed entirely comfortable in her own skin. Like Jamie, my sister wasn't caught up in traditional high school angst. Like Jamie, all my sister wanted in life was to get married. And like Jamie, my sister got cancer. Like Jamie, she met someone, a man who never believed he could fall in love with a girl like her. And finally, like Landon, even when this man knew my sister was probably going to die from her disease, he ended up asking her to marry him anyway.