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The novel begins with an introduction to the community of Medallion, Ohio, particularly the area known as The Bottom. It is a normal and closely-knit Black community where the strangest thing is probably Shadrack, a shell-shocked veteran from World War I. Having proclaimed January 3 to National Suicide Day, Shadrack often marches through town encouraging citizens to plan the day of their death in defiance of the horrible unexpectedness of dying naturally. The civil, conventional community of The Bottom dares to treat Shadrack with familiarity and tolerance.
One of the upright and outstanding members of The Bottom community is Helene Wright. She has moved to Medallion from New Orleans, where her grandmother raised her because her mother was a prostitute. During the story, Helene is married to a respectable man and has established herself in the community as the picture of propriety; it is all an effort to escape the family history of ill repute. She carefully and successfully raises her daughter, Nel, to be like her, living a life free from shame and immorality. Nel turns out to be a good, obedient, and traditional daughter. When Helene takes her to New Orleans for her grandmother's funeral, Nel is shocked to see racism for the first time. She is also shocked to realize that her mother is very insecure. Nel vows to never be like her mother; she returns home to The Bottom from New Orleans as a determined young woman who wants to be an individual.
Sula's mother, Hannah, is a deeply sensual woman who sleeps with all the men in The Bottom, shying away from any commitment. In spite of her lustfulness, the women in the community like Hannah, for she is not a threat; she does not want to possess their husbands, only sleep with them. Sula, however, cannot feel close to her mother and views her with detachment. Instead, she shares all of her thoughts and emotions with her best friend, Nel.
One day Sula hears her mother say that she does not like her daughter. Sula feels wounded and betrayed. The same afternoon Sula and Nel play with a little boy, Chicken Little, down by the river. Sula is holding him by his hands and swinging him around and around. She loses her grip, and the young boy falls in the water and does not come up. Not knowing where to turn, Sula goes to Shadrack's cabin for help. He stares at her and simply says the word "always," which she for years interprets as a threat, as in he will always know. She runs back to Nel, and the two decide not to tell what has happened. Nel assures Sula that it was just an accident, but Sula feels terrible. During Chicken Little's emotional funeral, the two girls are numb and silent. Sula has been changed forever.