An American Childhood

An American Childhood Part One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Dillard begins her story at five years old, in 1950. She describes the silence of her neighborhood (and neighborhoods across America), emptied each morning as the men left in a rush, the Catholic schoolchildren raced toward St. Bede’s church schools, and the men drove carefully around them. The war was over, and people seemed to want to settle down: Annie was born on the day Hitler died in April 1945. Her mother, like other women, stayed alone at home all day. For now, so did Annie.
In 1950, five years after World War II ended, a new era was beginning in America. This was an era of prosperity for many, but it was also rife with the worries and global political tensions of the Cold War. It was also a time, as Dillard makes clear, of continued differentiation between expectations for men and women in her milieu: her mother is expected to stay home rather than work.
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Annie recalls asking herself if she was living while gazing outside the window and sinking into daydreams. The icebox motor jerked her awake and it (or the dripping faucet or other things children notice) told her she was living. It was a marvel, she writes, that so many times a day the world reminded her she was there and awake. She asks how anyone could ever get weary of this tug-and-pull of oblivion and awareness.
The icebox motor is something it would be easy not to pay any attention to, but throughout the memoir Annie will be drawn to sights, sounds, and smells that seem unusual to her if not to other people. The attitude of wonder that she feels at even mundane aspects of the world is part of her awakening.
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Annie wandered outside, where her mother told her to lie on her back and try to see what the clouds looked like. Annie wondered how anyone could find this worth doing. She hoped the war would break out again and she could have a real use for her cap gun. Little by little, the leaves fell from their trees and, on Saturday afternoons, she watched the men rake them into heaps. It snowed and then stopped, and Annie wandered around the cold neighborhood, looking at the deep blue shadows, until the streetlights came on and woke her up: now it was winter.
Annie’s mother, too, is interested in the world around her, but this anecdote shows that Annie prefers to lend her attention to what she herself is interested in, not what adults tell her she should find beautiful. Here Dillard fast-forwards through memories that are most likely blurry to her, many years on, as the seasons blend into each other throughout her childhood.
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Dillard notes that the “interior life” is often blinded by self-centeredness, by its imagining that the world revolves around the self. What reason does, she says, is to allow the imagination to get a hold of the real world, if only from time to time.
Annie is, from an early age, well aware of the way her mind works, and precociously able to direct it: but looking back, Dillard suggests that there are drawbacks to this mode.
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In 1950, Annie recalls, she had trouble going to bed because “something” would come into her room and she believed that if she mentioned it, it would kill her. Her sister Amy, at two, slept unaware in the other room. Transparent and bright, the thing had a head and tail and moved quickly from the door across the wall, before stopping at the corner and shrinking into itself. Annie wouldn’t go to bed, knowing it might return. Finally, one night, she figured out that it was the corner streetlight outside, reflected through a passing car.
Like many children, Annie has a fear of the dark and of the beasts and monsters that might inhabit the night. She is able, like usual, to carefully describe this monster. But this story is also evidence for the power of reason, as mentioned in the section above: Annie eventually is able to link what she believes she sees with an actual phenomenon outside.
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Learning this was memorable in its own right: it showed Annie the process of reasoning. She solved the puzzle by comparing the noise of daytime cars to the noise associated with the monster and by figuring out how a car light could cast a shadow. A summer earlier, she had watched men with jackhammers on Edgerton Avenue and, when she lay down to nap, she heard the same sound—she’d realized that the inside and outside worlds were connected. Now, though, she had to relearn it.
Using her reason to master or at least control her imagination, Annie begins to piece together a number of elements she’s noticed, and begins to recognize that they are not disparate pieces of data but all part of a larger world. Annie is learning that the world exists outside of her, and that he is part of something larger.
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Annie realized that she could yield to a fictional tale or learn to reason: each night she gave into the fiction, and then took pleasure in replacing it with reason.
Fiction is powerful to Annie, but she enjoys recognizing its limits and controlling its pleasure.
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Another object of Annie’s fascination was the limp, coarse skin of her parents and grandparents and their friends. Children’s hands fit their skin, while adults had knuckly hands that were loose in their skins, and yet they never seemed to notice. Mother would allow Annie sometimes to play with her fingers, lifting them one after another, making ridges like the Alleghenies. She imagined that the trapezoids on her own skin were versions of the dust specks with which God had fashioned Adam and Eve. Sometimes she would try to count these trapezoids.
Once again, Annie shows a curiosity and attention to detail that is particularly remarkable for someone so young. What Annie notices, though, is bound up in her own experience: she doesn’t see skin as related to a process of aging, but rather as a fascinating, odd difference between adults and children, one that can engage her attention for hours.
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Sometimes, while Annie’s mother was napping, Annie would touch her mother’s smooth, fair face to see how flexible it was. If her mother woke up, she reminded Annie not to touch people’s faces while they were sleeping. Annie noticed a red gash, a welt from the cushion she was lying on, but her mother didn’t seem interested. She also noticed the hair on her father’s arms and legs, pulling at it until he said “ouch.” And at the beach she felt her parents’ shinbones and noticed the long bones of their feet, which she also found terrible.
The fascination that Annie feels for something as humdrum (to other people) as skin can lead her to act not quite in accordance with social expectations. But her parents both seem relatively content to allow Annie to explore and wonder about their bodies, treating them like experiments, as they are the living beings in closest proximity to her.
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Dillard says that, even though her parents seemed old to her, they were still young, and they were even younger than other parents. She was in awe of them when they dressed up for fancy occasions, marveling how her mother transformed from a napping housewife into a figure of beauty. Her father was taller than everyone else. Annie didn’t think the parties sounded like much fun: she could have suggested fun games to her parents, but they weren’t interested in running around, just like they weren’t fascinated by their loose skin and old age.
Although Annie as a child is fascinated by what seems like her parents’ great age, as an adult it’s clearer to her that she was raised by relatively young parents. In some ways, her parents are alluring, sophisticated and beautiful. To a child, though, even their parties seem like strange, boring chores, far from the more alluring world of childhood.
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In 1950 there was a big snowstorm, requiring Father to walk four miles with a sled to carry back milk. The family had a puppy then, which her parents would toss into the yard where it would pop up and down in the snow. It turned out that the puppy had distemper; a few days later it died.
These memories that Dillard plows up from deep within her childhood are sometimes disjunctive—images and feelings that are powerful and vivid but might lack a clear narrative.
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Annie remembered the beautiful, strange sight of Jo Ann Sheehy skating on the street during the second week of the big snow. The Sheehy family was Irish Catholic from a rough neighborhood. One summer, Jo Ann’s brother Tommy told Annie to tell her maid she was a “nigger.” She told Margaret Butler so when she got home; later that night, Mother came into her room, angry but calm, and told her never to use such words or associate with people who did.
In addition to her parents, Annie’s neighbors are some of the first people she interacts with around her. At a young age, she doesn’t realize how deeply offensive what Tommy said is, and how hurtful it would be to the family’s maid, Margaret Butler. Already, Annie begins to learn about discrimination and prejudice.
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The night Annie saw Jo Ann Sheehy skating, they were having dinner in the dining room, the only light coming from the candles on the table and from the blue fluorescent lamp illuminating their fish tank. They ate silently, protected from the dangerous cold. Then Mother looked outside, and Annie followed her gaze to see Jo Ann turning on ice skates, wearing a short skirt, mittens, and a red knitted cap. The packed snow of the street illuminated her from below. Annie marveled, and wondered if a car might come: she herself wasn’t allowed to play in the open street. She watched as Jo Ann skated out of the light and emerged again under another streetlight.
Annie’s relationship to the Sheehy family is, so far, one of skepticism and suspicion as a result of Tommy’s comment. But the observation of Tommy’s sister Jo Ann is an entirely different kind of memory—one not of ugly prejudice, but of beauty. The memory, once again, has to do more with a strong, vibrant image, one of great light and movement, than with a clear narrative path—a typical case for the memories of early childhood that Dillard relates.
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Annie continued, for a long time, to think of this night as emblematic of the contrast between the beauty and mystery outside the house and the peace and safety within. There was pleasure but also danger because of the night, cold, and forbidden open street, not to mention the fact that Jo Ann was Tommy’s brother, who had made Annie the recipient of her mother’s anger. The next morning Annie watched Jo Ann walk to school in a blue plaid skirt.
Annie is still attempting to reconcile the outside world with the world of her own mind, and her interpretation of the significance of the memory is also characterized by the limitations of a child’s perspective. Dillard implicitly hints that her earlier self was unable to see Tommy’s racism as a problem in its own right; instead, she saw it as a danger that could mean trouble for her.
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Annie knew that the Catholic schoolchildren had to fill their workbooks with “gibberish” that they had to memorize but also believe. She and the other Protestant children spread rumors that the St. Bede’s children worked in the dark and wrote down whatever the Pope said, before returning to their homes with imposing crucifixes and stewed fish for dinner.
Catholics and Protestants are both Christian, but Dillard shows that in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, there was a great gap between Catholics and Protestants, and even mutual suspicion and prejudice based on different religious customs.
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One day that spring, Annie waited and watched the St. Bede’s students leaving school, followed by a black army of nuns, seeming to be faceless. She didn’t know the nuns were the teachers; they seemed like prisoners, with faces that had rotted away. Mother marched Annie outside and asked one of the nuns if she could say hello to her daughter: as one bent down, Annie, realizing she couldn’t hide, let out a wail.
Nuns are Catholic, so Annie isn’t familiar with them—and lack of familiarity, here, breeds suspicion and fear. Annie’s mother, though, wants her daughter to be aware of the humanity behind the masks of the nuns, although in this case her attempt backfires.
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Dillard describes how these preceding scenes float without much coherence; soon they would grow more vivid and deep.
Dillard explains the evocative but sometimes jumbled memories that form the early sections of the book.
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As Dillard grew, her understanding of things expanded; for instance, she began to know her mother as a person. In her twenties, Annie’s mother had a taste for modernist furniture and Gaugin paintings. She spoke with ironic wit, puns, lines from Sinatra songs, and “Scotticisms” like “Put your wee headie down.” She wasn’t Scotch at all, rather Pennsylvania Dutch and French, but the Pittsburg where she grew up was almost entirely Scotch-Irish, and Mother picked up those expressions.
As Annie grows older, she’ll begin to fit certain observations and random events into a more complete portrait. Here her mother emerges as a great wit, a sophisticated woman who knows what her tastes are, but who also doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously.
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Mother would wake up Annie and Amy by racing into their room and opening the windows to say “It smells like a French whorehouse in here,” then running back out. She had great energy and sometimes wild moods. Her father had been a popular mayor who died when she was seven, leaving her with a sense of wistful nostalgia and longing. On Christmas Eve she would carry the girls to the bedroom, open the window, and ask if they could hear Santa’s bells from far away.
To Annie and Amy, expressions like these are a mystery—it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that Dillard can see the (probably inappropriate) humor in describing a child’s bedroom as a “whorehouse.” But Mother is also loving and fanciful: one can see her mother’s influence in Annie’s sense of wonder.
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In a dark room above a dirty alley next to the family’s yard lived a “terrible” old man, Doc Hall, and his sister. He would look out from the high set of rooms and curse at the kids playing on his woodpile. His sister went to early Mass each morning, dressed in black with a black cane.
Doc Hall is one of a number of adult characters that populate Annie’s childhood and whom she remembers almost as figures from a book, ominous and flat rather than fully rounded individuals. Note, too, that this ominous figure is also Catholic.
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Once Annie found a dime in the alley while she was digging under a poplar. She showed it to her father, who read the date, 1919, and said it might be valuable. He explained that soil tends to build up around old things: in Rome, he’d seen doorways several stories underground. Annie marveled, imagining Roman children being buried over their heads. She turned the dime over in her hand and decided her life would be devoted to treasure hunting.
To Annie, a dime from 1919—which was long before she was born— might as well be a piece of treasure from many centuries ago. Her father, too, has a penchant for adventure and for history, and it’s thanks to him that Annie develops her first notion of what she might like to do in life: continue to hunt out these sources of wonder.
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Dillard concludes, “That’s all”: there were only a few thoughts repeated over and over in her inner life for many years. She would long be fascinated by treasure, as something you could dig out of the dirt in a dismal, forsaken place away from ordinary life.
While Dillard cannot remember much about her early childhood, she also isolates moments like these as significant in terms of her own intellectual development.
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Annie spent a lot of time walking around the streets, memorizing her neighborhood, and exploring on a bicycle. At seven, she fell in love with a redhead named Walter Milligan, a tough Catholic who played football at Miss Frick’s field, where she’d sit and watch him before heading home. Across the street from the field was Frick Park—3880 acres, mostly wild woods, named for the wealthy Henry Clay Frick. Annie’s father forbid her to go there, saying there were bums living under bridges, but her mother said she could go if she never mentioned it.
Annie’s parents give her some leeway in exploring her surroundings and learning things on her own, even if there are limits that her father—more than her mother—sets on her explorations around the neighborhood. She continues to become acquainted with people outside the purview of her family, too, often connecting them to a specific place.
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For many years Annie roamed Frick Park, watching people lawn bowling and bird-watching. In summer and fall she imagined coming across undiscovered lands, where she could make a pioneer clearing. In the fall she would collect buckeye nuts from lawns.
Frick Park is a significant place in Annie’s childhood that allows her to develop interests that will be sustained over the course of her life and enchants her imagination.
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Before Annie’s preferred hobby was reading, it was walking. The town was like her text, and “the book” she created was instead a map—one she extended little by little. She felt joyful to find her way home again each night after wandering in the wilderness. Now, Dillard imagines a house and neighborhood map as the expansion of a sense of self, beginning at the skin.
Dillard considers exploring and reading to be similar activities, as both expand one’s own world; reading, too, is a kind of “wandering in the wilderness,” which contributes to Annie’s broadening sense of self.
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Annie soon learned to play football with the boys, developing the ability to throw herself on opponents fearlessly in order to support her team. The neighborhood boys also let her join them to throw snowballs, for which she once got in great trouble. It was a weekday morning after Christmas and she’d met some of the boys on Reynolds Street to throw snowballs at passing cars. Annie started making a perfect iceball, squeezing out the snow. A black Buick started down the street, and one snowball hit the driver’s windshield. For the first time, the car pulled over and stopped. A man got out and, as the kids scattered, he began running after them. They split up, Annie running with Mikey Fahey around a yellow brick house and through other backyards, across hedges and over picket fences: the man kept going. They kept running, improvising, racing through backyards, and finding that they were losing speed. Finally the man caught them by their jackets and they all stopped.
Although Annie spends a good deal of time by herself, she’s also adventurous and eager to play with other kids, including other boys—boys who seem perfectly content to allow her to join games that typically exclude girls. Children can unwittingly transmit prejudices, it seems, but also unwittingly work against them. The snowball game works well with Annie’s sense of adventure, risk, and danger. Mikey Fahey won’t turn up again in the memoir, but he is important as Dillard sifts among her memories because he is associated with this particular moment, one in which a childhood game seems to ratchet up to much higher stakes.
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The man took awhile to catch his breath, before saying, “You stupid kids.” They listened to his lecture, but Annie felt a sense of glory: at this point there was nothing he could really do other than talk with his normal righteous anger. She would have died happy had she died then, having been chased all over Pittsburgh, terrified and exhausted, in the dead of winter, by a furious red-headed man.
Annie has known that at the end of the chase would be a somber adult lecturing them on proper behavior. But she also knows that, short of wringing their necks, there’s nothing the man can do to take away from the exhilarating glory of a chase all around the city.
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Dillard moves on to talking about her parents’ penchant for explaining jokes to her, jokes of their own or those in Tom Lehrer albums. They considered joking an art, discussing with the children the technical and theoretical aspects of it and often practicing or analyzing pacing. Annie’s father was particularly a fan of stories set in bars with zoo animals or insects. He would linger over details; her mother was short and to the point. They collaborated on reconstructing old classic American jokes. Dante, the Sistine Chapel, and ancient myths were classics that Amy, Molly, and Annie only learned about later: they were raised on different classics.
Annie’s parents are in some ways respectable bourgeois members of an upper-class Pittsburgh milieu. But they are also different and unique. Their obsession with telling jokes, one that’s shared even though Father has a different way of handling humor than Mother does, is something else that Annie learns to carefully observe as a child. The space of her home might later become grating, but here it is exuberant and fun-loving as a result of her parents’ personalities.
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On special occasions Annie’s parents would trot out a complex, intricate comedy routine they called “Archibald a Soulbroke,” which Annie dscribes as being so complicated, thrilling, and likely to fail that performing it was comparable to walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. There was another joke that required the patience of friends and a long weekend: you told a long, pointless story and then pretended you’d messed up the joke, then, a few days later, you begin another joke and relate it back to the first one from a few days earlier. This performance was appealing to Mother because of how risky it was—she and Annie’s father were both sensitive to the potential failure of humor. They also appreciated practical jokes: one Christmas morning Annie awoke to find a leg in her stocking, a department store display that Mother had convinced a manager into lending her.
The way Dillard describes her parents’ love for jokes makes joking seem far more serious than usual—which only adds to the humor. Mother, in general, goes to what might seem like absurd lengths for the momentary joy of the practical joke or punch line. There is an element of narrative, in addition to that of performance, to this obsession. It’s important to craft a story in the right way, to perform it so that it succeeds in a group—a process that, as Annie learns, is wrapped up in the risk of failure. It’s possible to see her own interest in storytelling as related to her parents’ jokes.
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Dillard moves on to discussing her father’s parents, with whom Amy and she dined each Friday night for years. Her grandfather, Frank Doak senior, was a pot-bellied and funny banker; their grandmother Meta Waltenburger Doak, whom they called Oma, was kind and elegant, tall and redheaded. They had only one child: Annie's father. They moved each summer to a summer house on the shore of Lake Erie, where Amy and Annie stayed for a month, with a maid named Mary Burinda and driver and cook named Henry Watson.
From certain features of Dillard’s descriptions, it’s possible to view Annie’s grandparents in terms of social status alone; they are members of a prim, proper, upper-class Pittsburgh community, with a maid and a driver, no less. Dillard is more aware of their social class than her earlier self was of her own, but she also seeks to show the individual idiosyncrasies of her grandparents.
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Oma told Annie that, as a teenager, she’d sewed rows of lace on her shirt to make her breasts stand out; Annie marveled at this. Together with Amy the three of them would shower together in the bathhouse, Annie always getting sand in the red sponge. She admired Oma for her freckles and for her ability to float for hours in the lake.
Oma is elegant and sophisticated, but she also doesn’t hesitate to speak to Annie as if Annie were much older. What Annie remembers about her time at Lake Erie is mostly specific images and odd details.
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Henry Watson didn’t like the water, but always asked the women politely how it was. He wore heavy black pants and suspenders as he did errands around the house and washed the car. In the summer he stayed with the family, while in Pittsburgh he went home each night. At the Lake he had one friend, another driver named Cicero. Mary Burinda was thin, lighthearted; she’d lived with them for 24 years, and told Annie that her entire family had died during the 1918 flu epidemic. She had a crucifix hung over her bed; Oma said, somewhat admiringly, that she was “stubborn” about her Catholicism.
Again, Annie’s early childhood memories are less imbued with a narrative arc than her later ones: instead, she remembers habits and repeated details, associating these observations with specific people like Henry and Mary. Dillard also recognizes, in a way her earlier self could not, the complexity and even tragedy to the lives of people like Mary Burinda; before, Annie had a difficult time looking beyond herself.
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Oma had grown up an only child, rather wealthy, and with a limited view of the world. She referred to the car as “the machine.” She relaxed at the Lake, growing less formal and rigid than she was in Pittsburgh.
Lake Erie is a place of escape for Oma, as well, releasing her to a certain extent from the usual rigid expectations she imposes on herself.
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Oma’s grandfather had arrived in Louisville, Kentucky from Germany in 1848 and opened a brass foundry that became American Standard Corporation. She’d met Frank Doak in 1914 while visiting cousins in Pittsburgh; he was from a Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian family. He became a vice president at Fidelity Trust Bank, and he spent his evenings smoking cigars and reading the financial section of the paper.
While by the time Annie is born the family is comfortable and even wealthy, their longer family history is also a typical American tale of immigration and hardy entrepreneurship.
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Annie could see Lake Erie from her bedroom window, watching the waves each morning when she awoke. She sometimes thought about running away to Canada; instead she began to explore on a bicycle. She learned to whistle, spent her afternoons swimming with neighborhood kids, and spent evenings playing cards on the porch or coloring in coloring books with Oma. When they left the Lake, they would rise early and drive through Mennonite country, over a route the Indian traders had used in the 1750s, through Ohio and to Pittsburgh. Oma was proud to claim she’d never worked, but she’d directed the Presbyterian Hospital gift shop as full-time volunteer for twenty years, and she’d return there after each summer. Oma would deliver Amy and Annie, suntanned, covered with poison ivy, and happy, to their mother.
Annie uses her vacation to Lake Erie to continue her explorations and adventures in an entirely new setting. Her descriptions of these summers sound idyllic and untroubled; her memories here are some of her least convoluted and most imbued with nostalgia. Still, Annie always notices specific details, such as the long history of the roads along which they drive, roads that signal the relevance of Pittsburgh to American history. Annie also finds it curious that Oma takes pride in never having worked, although, as a woman in the 1950s, this is a sign of a particular privilege.
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Annie sensed a rivalry between her mother and Oma. Mother had won morally, condemning Oma’s racism, but she still worried that Annie and Amy would be “annexed” to the Louisville Germans. Oma had too much money without having taste, Annie’s mother thought. Annie reflects now that while her family paraded their moral superiority over Oma, they were actually not much better, and it was Oma’s gaudy taste that they deplored and not her morals. At the same time, Annie now recognizes that Oma’s assessment of Annie’s own family was accurate. Oma saw these two little children, about to start prep school and enjoying the fruits of Oma’s family’s prosperity, as naïve and even spoiled. She saw that the children didn’t understand the sacrifices and work that had permitted their privileged childhood.
Annie is beginning to understand the complications of internal family dynamics between her mother and her Mother’s mother-in-law, each of whom would like to influence children to be more like herself. Looking back, Dillard now has greater sympathy for her grandmother, thanks to her broader sense of Oma’s own trajectory and the way she might have viewed the Doaks.
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When Annie was eight, her family moved from Edgerton Avenue to Richland Lane on the far side of Frick Park. Her sister Molly was born there two years later, and it was there that Annie began to wake up truly, beginning a life of reading and drawing. During the summer they’d spent at the Lake when Annie was ten, they’d missed Molly learning to crawl.
Dillard moves forward and backward in time, structuring her memoir more in terms of clusters of memories around specific elements of her childhood than around straightforward chronology.
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Back in Pittsburgh, Annie resumed swimming at the country-club pool, a comedown from the freedom at the lake. At the club, there were too many adults, and she risked forgetting an old woman’s name at the peril of her whole family.
The country club is obviously a part of life for Pittsburgh’s more elite residents, a tiny and privileged group within the larger city, though Annie doesn’t sense that as a child.
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One Saturday morning before Annie started at a new private school, she sat on the porch reading Kidnapped (this was as her father was preparing to leave on his boat). The book took place in Scotland, and she read at one point, “when the house is redd up”—an expression also used by working-class parents in Pittsburgh, to mean clean or ready up. She hadn’t heard it since the family moved. The wind rattled the sunporch walls; Annie, who was ten, realized she’d likely remain in the double digits till she died. She thought to herself that she was awake now forever: she felt time and her consciousness joining together.
Dillard now returns to the scene with which she opened the memoir, but now focuses on a different aspect of the story—not her father’s trip down the river, but the book she was reading while he was preparing. As she begins to piece together the colloquial language of the Scottish book she’s reading with the idioms used by Scotch-Irish communities in Pittsburgh that she recognizes, she starts to develop a sharper sense of the relationship between herself and the world.
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