The novel opens with Bud (not Buddy) Caldwell as the narrator. He is living in an orphanage with many other children during the Depression. He is waiting in line for his breakfast when one of the caseworkers comes in and begins walking down the line. This usually means one of two things-either someone is going to be placed in a foster home or someone is about to be paddled. Unfortunately for Buddy, she stops right at him and asks if he is Buddy Caldwell. He quietly informs her that it’s Bud, not Buddy. She pulls him out of line along with another boy named Jerry Clark. She tells them enthusiastically that they are going to be placed in new temporary homes that very afternoon. They wonder if they’ll be together, but she quickly informs them that Jerry will be going to a home with three little girls and Buddy will be living with a family that has a twelve year old son. She cautions them not to look so glum, because, given that the country is in the midst of a depression, they are lucky that two families have opened their doors for them. She makes them recite what is evidently the mantra of this orphan home: “. . . we show our new foster families that we’re very cheerful, helpful, and grateful.” She also tells them that they won’t have time for breakfast and that she’ll put fruit in a bag for them. Then, they are sent to the sleep room to strip their beds and gather all their things.
On the way to the sleep room (where the beds are all “jim-jammed” together), Buddy is surprised that even after leaving for three foster homes before, he is still feels his nose getting runny and his throat getting choky and his eyes sting-y. However, the tears have stopped coming out for some reason, his eyes don’t cry anymore.
Nonetheless, Jerry, who is only six, has tears popping out of his eyes and running down his face. Buddy takes the time to sit down beside the younger boy and explain how he has it so much better. He’ll be treated by those little girls like a special pet, and even though he’ll have to put up being treated like a little baby when he plays with them, he’ll be much better off than Buddy. Buddy will be in a home with an older boy who will probably want to fight. It makes Jerry feel better so Buddy goes to his own bed to pack his own belongings.
While he works, Buddy thinks about how hard it is for Jerry to be six years old. To Buddy, it is the age when adults stop thinking you’re cute and stop giving you little swats and jump to slugging you so hard you see stars. He learned that at his first foster home. He also humorously points out that it’s the age when you begin to lose your teeth. At first, it’s kind of funny, but then it becomes scary, because what seem to be perfectly good parts of your body start falling off, and you’re never sure what might be next, like an arm or a leg. Six is also tough, because that’s how old he was when his mother died, and he was the one that found her lying there.
Buddy pulls out his suitcase. He’s the only boy there who has one, a seeming luxury even though it needs twine to keep it closed. Inside are his many treasures covered by a blanket to protect them. At the bottom are the flyers. He pulls out the blue one which is starting to wear out from him looking at it so much. He likes checking it to see if anything has changed since he last looked at it. It was like he was sure there was a message for him there somewhere, but he didn’t have a decoder ring to read it. He once again reads each part of the flyer - the top has the words LIMITED ENGAGEMENT with smaller letters under it saying, “Direct from S.R.O. engagement in New York City.” Then, in big letters again, the flyer announced, “Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!” The six exclamation points make it seem like this is the most important news anyone can think of. After this information come the words, “Masters of the New Jazz,” and then in the middle of the paper is a blurry picture of a man that Buddy feels strongly is his father. The man is standing beside what Buddy calls a giant fiddle, and he looks like he’s tired, because he has a droopy, dreamy look on his face. Buddy is sure from this picture alone that the man is real quiet, real friendly and smart. Under his picture, someone had written in pen, “One Night Only in Flint, Michigan, at the Luxurious Fifty Grand on Saturday June 16, 1932. 9 Until ?”
Buddy remembers his mother bringing the flyer home with her from work one day and that she was very upset, and after laying it on the dinner table, she kept picking it up and putting it down and looking at it over and over. Buddy couldn’t understand at the time why it upset her so much, because the only difference that he could see was the message in pen about Flint. Not long after she brought this flyer home, he knocked on her bedroom door, and when she didn’t answer, he found her dead inside.
Now Buddy puts everything back in place and carefully ties up his suitcase with his only other set of clothes inside. He sits down shoulder to shoulder with Jerry while they wait to be summoned to their new homes. Buddy thinks, “Here we go again.”
This opening chapter is only eight pages long, but it is chock full of information important to the story: Buddy being sent to yet another foster home, but having had terrible experiences at least one of them; a flyer about a musician that Buddy believes is his father; his mother being upset about the flyer and then suddenly dying when Buddy was six; and Buddy being unable to cry any more. What’s more, the chapter immediately presents a wonderful description of a ten year old orphan during the Depression in 1936. Buddy is a very gentle, kind child. However, he’s also a child who has experienced the trauma of his mother’s death and finding her body at the age of six. He’s a child who has been abused in at least one foster home, and who also is very much alone.