Book Summary of Laurie Halse Anderson's Catalyst
Plot summary by Jim Blasingame
Each main chapter heading has a name taken from chemistry and a safety tip. Chapters often have subheadings, also taken from the terminology of chemistry.
Chapter 1.0 Elemental
The first chapter opens with Kate Malone, the protagonist, running (she is a track and cross country athlete) at night. She likes to run at night because it gives her peace of mind. Running seems to be about something other than athletic competition for her.
Kate imagines herself as two people: "Good Kate," daughter of the Reverend Jack Malone, A-plus student, nurturer of her asthmatic brother, doer of all domestic chores in the house since her mother died. "Bad Kate," on the other hand, is conceited, hard to get along with, insincere about her religious faith, free and easy with the boys (well, one boy, anyway) and more. As the novel continues, the reader will find that "Bad Kate" is just Good Kate's overactive and guilt-ridden conscience.
Kate seems to suffer from anxiety over a number of things: her college entrance exam scores and admissions essay for MIT, for example, the only school to which she applied, and also the fact that she did not apply to any other schools as safety nets in case MIT rejects her. All her friends, good students just like she is, applied to their favorite school(s) but also to a list of second, third and fourth choices, just in case. Not only does Kate have no safety net, bus she has also failed to tell anyone, including her father that she has no options should MIT, her mother's alma mater, find her lacking. Whether it is imperative or just her own self-imposed guilt (which she sometimes pretends is coming from Sophia, the cat, and Mr. Spock, the dog), Kate cares for her brother Toby's health. He has asthma and allergies and needs medication on a regular schedule.
Kate seems to have an intelligent, biting wit and sense of humor although she also seems to use her talent a little too much for self-deprecation.
1.1.1 Relative Density
Kate has a talent for description, a talent she uses in describing (though first person narration) the nuances of early adolescent masculinity in her brother's room, which she finds mildly revolting, as well as his fascination for Playboy magazine. It is 2:00 a.m. as Kate finishes ironing the family laundry and administering her brother's medicine. Her father comes home from a ministry need, and Kate pretends to have been asleep in bed.
1.2 Atomic Family
Rev. Malone is a good and compassionate man who takes the parable of the Good Samaritan very much to heart (too much, according to Kate). Kate uses a chemistry analogy to explain that her father is the "loosely bonded electron" in their "atomic family unit," as he zooms around the stable center composed of Kate and Toby (the proton and neutron). The reader is led to believe that Kate feels somewhat neglected by her father; perhaps his compassionate efforts outside the home leave little of his attention remaining for her and Toby.
Kate cannot sleep even though it is very late. She obsesses over her admission (or lack thereof) to MIT. She visualizes herself at MIT, thinks positively, but these acts offer little comfort.
Kate's mother died nine years earlier.
Across the cemetery behind their house, Kate can see a farmhouse with one light on in a second story window. Her classmate (but not friend), Teri Litch, must be up late just like Kate. Kate surmises Teri Litch is not obsessing over college entrance, implying that Teri Litch is not college bound.
Chapter 2.0 Delayed Reaction
Kate is mildly amused and annoyed by the noises coming from her brother's room suggesting sexual self-gratification.
Kate has overslept and is late for school by an hour.
Kate is not pleased with the degree to which God failed to bestow her with feminine attributes (she describes her bra as "unnecessary").
Kate does not seem physically healthy (unhealthy skin color, poor sleep and nutrition, over-exercising, and stress) and she knows it.
Kate resolves to complete her morning household tasks in record time to minimize her tardiness. She feeds the cat and dog, lays out her brother's clothes, prepares his morning medicines and regrets that she doesn't prepare a hot breakfast for her brother and father. Her morning seems to add to her stress.
She is surprised to see her father at the kitchen table as she is about to leave. He is reading the paper and getting sermon ideas. He is armed with an "industrial size bottle of Tylenol." Apparently, he suffers from migraines. The reader could easily infer that father and daughter have much in common.
Rev. Malone senses an unreasonable stress level over the MIT admission on Kate's part, and he tries to get her to talk about it but to no avail.
Rev. Malone has been out late helping a mother with a sick child. Kate's remarks imply that she feels her father neglects his own kids' needs ("You should have heard Toby coughing last night.") in lieu of helping other families with their needs.
2.2 Transition Element
Kate has an old beater of a car, an ancient Yugo (apropos for a preacher's daughter to drive a junk heap). She anthropomorphizes the car a little (calls it "Bert").
Kate resents it when her father says "God bless" to her. Kate describes herself as an atheist although her admonishments for God's handling of the world seem to contradict a lack of faith. Kate resents her father to a degree she feels is beyond normal/average (adult readers will not think there is so much wrong with this father/daughter relationship). She does not like the expectations placed upon her (by whom?) as a "preacher's daughter."
Although she claims to remember little about her mother, her description of her mother's death is heart wrenching. Her mother came down with pneumonia and was dead in three days, much to the surprise of even the doctors.
Kate seems to always have issues with the woman security officer who monitors the school entrance. She almost can't in to school (no school ID) even though, as she tells the security guard, she is "ranked third in the senior class," belongs to National Honor Society, and is a peer counselor. "Do I look hostile?" Kate asks the guard. "You are a teenager," the guard replies.
Kate refers to the guard as Cerberus in her narration (the three-headed dog in Greek mythology which guards the entrance to the underworld).
2.4 The Crucible
Kate finds the orderliness of chemistry lab comforting; she could study math and chemistry all day, she says. The reader might infer that her life lacks the boring predictability of science. She very much likes her chemistry teacher, Ms. Cummings, who is obviously a role model for her and someone who regards her as a special young woman.
Kate feels peer pressure from her classmates, most of whom seem to have been accepted to their dream universities (all schools of high academic standing and prestige). In narrating the story, she refers to them by their names and grade point averages (Omar Hakeen, 4.12). The class ends with the dramatic and tearful announcement by one of Kate's peers to the entire class that she, Mariah Yates, has been accepted to Stanford.
This chapter takes place in the cafeteria, which Kate does not describe affectionately. She passes by the football players (not her "cup of tea although her pheromones rage as she comes close enough to smell them: cologne and French toast).
She also notes the presence of Teri Litch, sitting all alone at a nearby table. Teri is an outcast and has been all her life. She comes from a rough homelife, had only two outfits to wear in junior high, beat Kate up often when they were children and takes vocational carpentry classes now that they are in high school. She has no friends. She is not especially feminine. The football players are harassing Teri as Kate walks by. Kate doesn't think it's right, but she doesn't do anything to stop it, either.
Kate joins her friends, all very intelligent and popular, including her boyfriend, Mitchell A. Pangborn III. Every notices that Kate looks tired, or as they say in New England, "wicked tired."
The football team continues to harass Teri Litch, even following her when she switches tables to escape them. Still, Kate doesn't like the treatment given Teri, but still, she doesn't help. When Teri reaches her limit, she smacks one of the football players in the face with a big history book, then starts in with her fists, and a riot ensues.
Before security can hustle Teri off, she has lost her watch and her glasses are scratched and on the floor.
Kate's English class is not especially inspirational for her. She spots her dad's car (the "Godmobile") in the parking lot and wonders if he has brought the letter she has been waiting for indicating her acceptance (or rejection) from MIT. He comes and goes. It is not the letter but probably the need of guidance or help by some high school student in trouble that brought him to the school, which irritates Kate.
Kate is so distracted over MIT that she actually loses her way in a cross country meet, gets off the course and winds up coming across the finish line after everyone has already left. Not wearing her glasses probably didn't help (She's about to get contacts), but it is not a good indication of her life situation.
Kate drives home from the cross country meet, all the time obsessing about MIT. As she arrives at their house (adjacent to the church) all the parked cars remind her that tonight is the church's "chicken and biscuit" night, a weekly chicken dinner for all church members and any other needy souls. Before Kate goes over to the church, she discovers that they have no hot water. So much for a shower.
2.9 Surface Tension
Kate pitches in and helps serve. Her father is obviously highly regarded by many people. Many guests are there including the members of the Catholic church (the Malones are obviously Protestant) and also Teri Litch. Kate is not happy to see Teri, especially when Teri steals Kate's watch (left by the kitchen sink).
2.10 Elastic Collision
Kate follows Teri with a plan to get her watch back, but when she arrives at the Litch home, she is caught off guard when Ms. Cummings, her favorite teacher, shows up with something for the Litch family, and Teri invites Kate in.
2.11 Half Life
Kate can't help but be charmed by two-year-old Mikey Litch (Teri's brother? No. Kate will find out much later that Mikey is Teri's son). Kate sees a side of Teri with which she is unfamiliar. Mrs. Litch is old and out of it, and doesn't seem to do much parenting; in fact, she seems to need to be taken care of herself.
Kate is surprised to see her father show up at the Litch household and to find that he is a good friend to the Litch family. Her father has come to talk with Teri's mother about the fight with the football players, but he has obviously been looking out for the Litch family, including Mikey who has had an ear infection.
Kate leaves not understanding that her father does not see the stolen watch, even though it was Mrs. Malone's, as an important issue in the overall scheme of things, nor does he think Kate should.
PART 2: LIQUID
Chapter 3.0 Galvanize
A substitute teacher means Kate's favorite class, chemistry, is a bust, but her father shows up during class and he has the fabled letter from MIT. Kate has been rejected.
Kate is devastated and her father seems so, too. She wishes she were a small child again, and he could pick her up and make it all better. He hugs her and tells her that it's not the end of the world, that she has all those other schools to choose from. He does not know that she failed to apply anywhere else.
She is not comforted by his attempts to make her feel better, and she is somewhat peevish to find that he is at school to visit with the counselors because the police are involved in Teri's mishap with the football players. Kate chooses to believe delivering her letter was not his main reason for coming.
3.0.1 Scientific Method
Kate attempts to apply the scientific method to her rejection but the "experiment" doesn't work. She burns the rejection letter over the Bunsen burner.
Kate is so distracted she can't open her own locker. Mitchell shows up and opens her locker for her.
3.2 Significant Figure
Kate skips class and "hell freez[es] over." Kate walks by an art class creating a sculpture and she ponders that art students are very different from her, "too random." She continues to obsess over MIT, now over the rejection. Her musing are somewhat humorous, but in a self-deprecating way.
At the counselors' office, students are lined up, presumably to talk about their alternative college choices after being rejected by their first choices. Kate can see her father, Teri Litch, Mrs. Litch and Mikey, a policeman and a counselor in one office. Mikey is tearing pages out of a college catalog (an interesting contrast).
Kate heads for Calculus and revels in the constancy of mathematics. She makes some jokes in her mind about variables and formulas, but soon she is creating an equation the solution for which is how she will get into MIT now.
Kate's coping mechanism for stress is apparently to over-exercise: "I need to run until I bleed." Track practice does not include running today, but rather working out in the weight room. Kate runs on the treadmill so hard that she passes out, another sign she is headed down the wrong path.
Kate will not admit she has a problem (pushing herself to physical extremes is an unhealthy coping mechanism and symptomatic of deeper problems.)
The Litch's barn burns down, as does part of their house. Reverend Malone brings Teri and Mikey to the Malone home to stay. Kate is flabbergasted. Teri and Mikey move in, and Kate struggles between Bad Kate, who wants them out, and Good Kate, who feels obligated to help them.
Teri is not an appreciative guest and seems to revel in irritating Kate. Kate sleeps on a cot in her room, and Teri and Mikey share Kate's bed. The reader infers that Teri is compensating for her own feelings of being an imposition.
Chapter 4.0 Oxidizing Agent
Kate wakes up to find Mikey's diaper has exploded (so to speak) all over her bed and Teri is nowhere to be found. Mikey calls for "Mommy!" but Kate doesn't catch on who Mikey's mommy really is. When Teri comes up the steps, Kate notices Teri wearing a necklace that is Kate's. Teri cleans Mikey up, and Reverend Malone calls Kate's work to say she has to stay at home and help with an emergency (taking care of Mikey).
4.1 Unstable Compound
Kate is mad at her dad for imposing Teri Litch on her, Teri being, of course, the antithesis of Kate's usual crowd of friends, who are hip and popular.
The Reverend Malone is heading up a group trying to rebuild the Litch house at the lowest cost, which means getting materials at cost and when possible donated labor. While Reverend Malone and Teri work things out with the construction people, Kate is mandated to look after Mikey. She can't help but be charmed by him and even though she thinks if the universe were fair, she would be looking at microwaves for her dorm room at MIT rather than babysitting for the Litch family, she likes Mikey.
Kate seems to be accepting her new role as Teri Litch's friend, despite herself.
Mrs. Litch is staying with a church member. She doesn't seem to be very sharp or aware of what's going on around her. Again, it seems obvious that Teri plays the role of head of household in the Litch family. They go to pick up Teri's paycheck at The Moon, a biker bar where she works. Even though Mikey spills first soda an later ice cream inside on Bert's (the car) floor and seat, Kate is completely won over, and feels bad for him. Teri seems to be asking (through mockery) if Kate wants to help rebuild the house. More will come of this later.
Kate gets contacts to replace her glasses.
4.3 Free Radicals
Teri and Kate go to the grocery store where they separate to shop just before Kate runs into her friend, Sara. Sara is aghast that Teri is living with the Malones. Sara leaves, but then Mitchell Pangborn, Kate's boyfriend shows up.
Everyone knows about Kate's rejection and Mitchell thinks tough love is the best way to handle Kate's grief. Kate may be losing her fascination with him. Mitchell has been accepted to Harvard. He makes plans for the two of them for the next day, but Kate says no. Mitchell observes that she seems different, not herself (for better or worse, the reader may wonder).
4.4 Activation Energy
Teri jokes about stealing from the grocery store and escaping, and Kate doesn't know how much to believe. Teri seems to enjoy teasing Kate, but there seems to be less irritation and more friendly kidding going on. Teri's social skills are not the best. They argue a little bit in the car, things turn mean, and they agree that they can't wait to be rid of each other (the reader is not so sure).
Chapter 5.0 Alchemy
Church is very different on Sunday now that Kate has contacts. She can see what's going on with everyone. The night before, to escape Mikey's snoring, Teri went on one of her late night runs, as usual, running herself into exhaustion. During the natural meditation that occurs during church, Kate again obsesses about getting into MIT. She wonders she can appeal the rejection.
Chapter 6.0 Electrostatic Forces
While Teri and the construction people work on the house, Kate goes to school, taking Mikey with her and dropping him off at the high school preschool. She thinks he is funny, especially when he repeats what he has heard in reference to the security guard (whom Kate hates) loud enough for the guard to hear it. Kate continues to brood about MIT.
6.1 Atomic Structure
Kate takes Mikey to the Litch house after school, and Teri is obviously happy with the work going on. She invites Kate on a tour in which she explains her plans for the house. Teri knows her carpentry and her plans to transform the house, much of which revolves around creating a nice environment for Mikey, reveal a different side of her than the antisocial misfit she has appeared to be.
Kate learns a little about Teri's father, the late Charlie Litch. The truth about Charlie will come out as the story goes on, none of which is good. Charlie had done a lot of illegal and unsafe electrical wiring in the house and the dangerous remains are now quite a safety hazard.
Teri shows Kate how to hammer a nail. Kate doesn't perform very well.
Kate goes for the late night run again, the two Kates battling it out in her head as she does.
The next morning life seems to be settling into some kind of routine. Teri is noticeably excited about the rebuild of their house, Mikey is off to preschool at the high school again, and Kate goes to see the counselor about applying into a college with a revolving admissions deadline (like a state school where you can pretty much get in any time).
The counselor says another option for Kate would be no college this first year out of high school, but instead a year to "get her act together," a suggestion Kate regards as way too sixties.
Kate asks her dad to help her appeal to MIT, and he indicates he thinks her response to the rejection is unhealthy-she needs to get over MIT and move on.
Kate feel like she has lost control of her life and it is passing her by. School is just on automatic pilot, the Litch family invasion continues, and she appears to have dumped her boyfriend, Mitchell.
Chapter 7.0 Nuclear Stability
Reverend Malone and his crew are getting the Litch property shaped up, including the burned down bar. The house is coming along nicely: cabinets hung, ready for appliances. Teri seems to enjoy bossing people around (with typical Teri lack of diplomacy). Kate and her friends pitch in working on the house, painting and working on the interior. They order pizza
Mikey is the darling on the construction site. He entertains everyone as they get ready to eat the pizzas. After prayer, everyone digs in.
Mikey disappears for a few moments before anyone notices.
0.0.0 Quantum shift
They all find Mikey upstairs in what was to be his room. He is lying on the floor, his metal toy truck blackened, as is the wall around the bare electrical wires that were soon to be covered. He will never wake up.
Teri is hysterical. Reverend Malone and others apply CPR until the ambulance comes, but to no avail. The EMT's attempt to revive him but it's too late.
Teri tells Kate what Kate had not yet figured out. Mikey is Teri's son.
PART 3 : GAS
Chapter 8.0 Photoelectrons
TV reporters come to the Litch home. The police take statements. People are in shock and go home to make sure their own children are safe and sound when bad things happen for no reason like this. Kate blames herself; they should have never lost track of him. Mitchell is more of nuisance than a comfort, ranting and raving about a law suit against the building inspector. Before they leave, Kate and her friends paint on the bedroom walls with their fingers in small doodles like children.
Teri has been to the hospital where she was sedated, and by midnight , she and Kate and Reverend Malone go home.
Kate may have figured something else out, something not spoken of often in her sugar-and-spice world; she asks her father if Teri's father was also Mikey's father. Reverend Malone believes this was very likely. He says he is going to try to get Teri into counseling.
Teri won't go to sleep but insists instead on going back to the house and staying in Mikey's room. Kate protests but to no avail.
8.1 Residual Matter
Kate follows Teri to the Litch house and up to Mikey's room. They wind up seated on the floor, back to back, encircled by Mikey's toy cars and trucks, holding hands.
Chapter 9.0 Radioactive
Teri seems in a fog that next day, Sunday. That night the girls sleep in Mikey's room again.
Chapter 1 0.0 Phase Transition
Strangely enough on Monday, Kate had planned to stay home, but Teri wants to go to school. Ironically, the security guard who always hassles Kate does not bother Teri when she passes through the security checkpoint ("Everyone knows Teri," she says.) Teri's plan is not to go to her own classes, however, but rather to go to Kate's.
At lunch Teri walks by the football team and glares at them but they remain perfectly silent. Kate is amazed that Teri has the strength to face life after Mikey's death, and Kate says Teri is made of titanium.
Teri and Kate eat lunch with Kate's friends. They seem to accept Teri and interact with her. Kate notices that Teri is still wearing the watch she stole from Kate.
10.2 Freezing-point Depression
When Teri and Kate get home from school, there is a funeral director there. Teri must look at casket brochures and make decisions about the funeral arrangements. "I am so out of here," Kate says. The reader finds it an unbelievably large emotional burden for a teenage girl to bear (Teri).
Kate despairs at a world that lets a father beat his wife and rape his daughter, but then pays for a funeral for a small boy.
Kate stoops to calling MIT and pretending to be her own mother calling to find out if her daughter's rejection wasn't some kind of clerical error. The admissions office explains that many brilliant students don't get into MIT because there are a limited number of spots and competition is stiff, plus Kate's essays were weak.
A visit to Mitchell Pangborn's house reveals a world quite opposite of the Litch home, providing a stark contrast. They are rich, privileged, and have power, the power to make things happen their way in life.
Kate admits to Mitchell that she didn't apply to any school but MIT, so she has no alternative other than a state university. Mitchell is full of advice about what Kate should do with her life, too full.
Chapter 11.0 Alpha Decay
The funeral is held on Tuesday. Mikey's casket is "the size of a small toy chest." It is closed. The Reverend Malone can not speak when it is time for the eulogy. He weeps and eventually tells the congregation that "sometimes even your pastor can't find the right words." Teri chose "Rubber Ducky" for the closing hymn. Kate is overcome with emotion.
11.1 Beta Decay
As Mikey is laid to rest in the cemetery, Kate sees a cardinal land on her mother's headstone although her dad can't see it from where he is standing.
After the funeral and burial, the adults all come back to the Malone home to pay their respects to Mrs. Litch and Teri (who is not there). Mrs. Litch hardly seems to understand what happened, but she has seemed pretty out of it through the whole book.
Kate tells her brother, Toby, something out about their own mother's funeral that he did not know, something that is revealing about Kate's behavior in the present. As a little girl at her mother's funeral, Kate ran out of the church and just kept on running (just like she runs now) until her feet were blistered and her mother was in the ground. The reader guesses there was a missing resolution to her mother's death for Kate all these years.
Kate finds Teri at the Litch home swinging a sledge hammer and wrecking the house. It doesn't make sense to Kate, but this is how Teri seems to express emotion. Kate and Teri have conversation that reveals the relationship they have developed. Kate tells Teri about the food left over that people always bring around a funeral and about Mrs. Litch, and Teri grudgingly holds up her end of the conversation.
When the conversation turns to what Teri dressed Mikey in for the funeral, the two girls break down. Teri immediately wants to continue the destruction but Kate tries to stop her. They argue and Kate leaves. Before Kate has driven away, Teri throws a bucket of red paint right through t a glass window and it breaks open across Kate's (Bert's) windshield. Bert's windshield is a "spider webbing" of broken glass and red paint spread back and forth by the windshield wipers.
Chapter 12.0 Activated Complex
Kate and Teri don't see each other. Weeks go by. Kate continues to run at night and "sleepwalk during the day." Teri doesn't attend school, and by the candlelight in Mikey's room, Kate knows she is staying in their old house.
At the last track meet of the year, the gun goes off and Kate says her feet won't move. She says her feet will only run at night. She steps off the track.
Kate completely separates from Mitchell.
Chapter 13.0 Critical Pressure
Sara comes to Kate's house one Saturday and demands that Kate take a shower and get out of the house, come and meet their friends at the Salt City Diner. Kate can't help but notice how much it resembles the school cafeteria, but for adults.
Teri Litch turns out to be their waitress. Teri lets her contemptuous attitude get the best of her, gets in an argument with everyone plus her boss and ends up quitting.
As she leaves, Teri stops in front of Kate and deposits Kate's watch and necklace.
13.1 Covalent Bonding
After the diner incident, Kate takes off running, headed to find Teri, probably at the Litch house if she doesn't catch her along the way. In her mind, Kate refers to her mother's watch now as "Teri's watch."
Kate finds Terri sitting on the floor in Mikey's room, curled up in a ball. Kate sits down, takes off the watch and places it between them. Teri pulls it toward her but doesn't pick it up. Teri says, "You're crying. You never cry."
Kate apologizes for mean things Mitchell said at the diner. They talk. Like most talks, Teri has a way of making it an argument, but much of it is civil and even touching. Teri tells Kate that the horrible thing is that Mikey's death really wasn't anybody's fault, it was just an accident and she seems to be referring to her own life when she says "just one damn accident after another."
Kate tells Teri that she wants her to have the watch. She also says that she is not going away to college right away, but instead wants to help Teri get the house put back together. A little friendly teasing by Teri who seems please to hear this, and Teri asks, "When do you want to start?" To which Kate replies, "Now."