A Walk to Remember is set in North Carolina. It begins with the narrator, fifty-seven-year old Landon Carter, announcing that he is going to look back on a life-changing event that happened to him when he was seventeen years old.
Sparks here uses the literary technique known as the frame. He tells a story by framing it, like a picture inside a frame. The frame, to which he will return at the end of the story, is that of the middle-aged man who looks back on an event earlier in his life. The frame is a common literary device. Geoffrey Chaucer used it, for example, in The Canterbury Tales.
The story is set in the small town of Beaufort, North Carolina, in 1958. Each year the local Baptist church sponsors a Christmas play at the Beaufort Playhouse written by Hegbert Sullivan, a local minister. Hegbert is an old man who habitually condemns “fornication” from the pulpit, and the local boys, including Landon, would always make fun of him. The play is called The Christmas Angel, and is about a man, Tom Thornton, whose wife died during childbirth, leaving him to raise the girl on his own. For Christmas the little girl wants a music box with an angel engraved on the top. Tom searches to find the gift, without success. Then on Christmas Eve he meets a mysterious woman who promises to help him find the gift. She asks him what he wants for Christmas, and he says he wants his wife back. She takes him to a city fountain and tells him to look into the water to find what he seeks. He looks and sees the face of his daughter. The woman disappears, and Tom goes home and realizes that his daughter is all he has left of his wife. The next morning, the requested gift appears underneath the Christmas tree, and the angel looks exactly like the mysterious woman he met. Hegbert’s play is very popular, and is always put on by the high school seniors.
Landon then tells of his own family. He is the son of Worth Carter, who has been a U.S. Congressman for over thirty years. Worth Carter and Hegbert do not get along well, and Landon also comments that his father has been largely absent while his son grew up. He spent nine months of the year in Washington, D.C. Landon feels that he hardly knows his father. The lack of a fatherly influence has made Landon into something of a rebel, always up to pranks.
His grandfather made the family fortune, but did it by dubious means, acquiring land, property and a bank, and charging outrageous interest rates. During the Great Depression, he was ruthless in foreclosing on businesses that defaulted on loans. One of the people who worked for Landon’s grandfather was Hegbert, but when he realized what kind of a man his employer was, he quit and entered the ministry. Hegbert married late and was fifty-five when his daughter Jamie was born. His wife died giving birth to Jamie (which explains the autobiographical nature of Hegbert’s play).
Jamie is a senior and she has been picked to play the angel in the play. Landon takes the drama class, taught by Miss Garber, because he thinks it will be an easy course. Jamie is in the class, but Landon has no interest in her, regarding her as plain. She wears drab clothes, carries a Bible with her all the time, and has never had a boyfriend. She volunteers in various good causes and is always cheerful, never saying a bad thing about anyone.
Sparks uses the first chapter to set the scene at a leisurely pace. He creates something of a Southern feel to it, without going into much detail, and he also creates a sense of the history of the area and period (only three television channels available), particularly with the story of Landon’s grandfather. He also lays out the initial characterization of Landon, Jamie, and Hegbert. Landon is a rebel without much taste for academic work, but it is clear that he is not too wayward a kid, just a boy who has lacked a father as a role model to emulate. Jamie is characterized as the product of her religious home environment; as the minister’s daughter, it seems that she is almost too good to be true. The minister Hegbert is seen through Landon’s unsympathetic eyes, but it is clear that he has endured much hardship and suffering. Sparks also cleverly characterizes Landon’s best friend Eric Hunter with one deft touch—Eric quite openly goes through Landon’s lunchbox looking for his candy bar (which he will no doubt eat over Landon’s protests). Throughout, Sparks manages to maintain the tone of an older man looking back on the immaturity of his youth.