As Lily, her younger brother Buster, and their younger sister Helen try to bring the family cows in from the pasture, Lily senses that the animals know “trouble” is coming. Then there is a sudden rumble in the ground, and a flash flood rushes toward the children. Lily and Buster carry Helen between them as they run, climbing a cottonwood tree just in time to avoid being slammed by a six-foot wall of water. The children sit in the tree for hours. Lily, the eldest at age ten, takes charge. Helen says she can’t hold on any longer, but Lily tells her she has to. She grills her siblings about their multiplication tables, state capitals, and whatever else she can think of, and is able to keep them awake through the night.
Lily’s straightforward voice and practical recitation of how she saved her siblings establishes her as a brave, resourceful girl who does what she needs to do in order to survive. This scene also makes clear that she and her family are living in an inhospitable, unpredictable environment, where nature can turn on them in an instant. Lily will reference climbing the cottonwood tree later in the novel as a means of reminding Helen that there is always a way out of tricky situations.
In the morning, the children climb down and wade through the now shallower water to reach their house. Upon arrival, Dad rushes to greet them while Mom kneels in prayer, asserting that her praying through the night is what saved them. She demands that they thank both her and their guardian angel. After Lily tells her father how she saved her siblings, he tells her that maybe she was the guardian angel.
This scene introduces Lily’s parents and establishes Mom’s deep (yet ultimately passive) religious belief. Lily values self-reliance over blind faith and resents the implication that an outside force saved her siblings.
The family lives on Salt Draw near the Pecos river in west Texas, an unforgiving terrain with hard soil, prickly plants, and thunderstorms. Because the land is so dry, the family’s 160 acres is barely enough to raise their cattle. The land is also overrun with peacocks, which Dad intended to sell but proved unpopular with locals. Dad’s main job is breeding and training carriage horses, which he loves despite having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child. This resulted in his walking with a limp and having permanently slurred speech. He still loves horses, however, because they do not pity him like people do.
This further establishes how inhospitable the land is where Lily’s family lives, and how nature dictates their lives. Dad’s peacock scheme foreshadows his later purchase of Great Danes with Lily’s tuition money, and suggests his susceptibility to harebrained schemes. His devotion to horses will also later blind him to the fact that his entire business is becoming obsolete.
Lily notes that she was born in 1901, shortly after Dad got out of prison for allegedly murdering a settler in a land dispute. Dad’s own father, Robert Casey, had been killed in a similar dispute decades earlier. Dad maintained his innocence, though. After marrying Lily’s mother, they left the area and moved to their current location along Salt Draw.
Life in the southwest at this time is dangerous and often lawless. This passage also establishes the Casey family’s deep connection to the area, Dad’s quick temper, and the circumstances from which Lily will ultimately pull herself.
Lily and her family, like many in the area, live in a simple dugout in the ground as a result of not having enough timber for a house. Insects, snakes, and small mammals sometimes fall from the ceiling, and the dugout is always filled with mosquitos. When Lily gets yellow jack fever, Dad takes care of her. Mom says the fever may have “boiled her brain” and made it harder for her to find a husband.
The Caseys live in extreme poverty and, as ranchers, are almost entirely at the mercy of the natural world. Mom further represents and has internalized many of the sexist attitudes of the time. Lily must overcome both poverty and misogyny to fulfill her version of the “American Dream.”
Mom is overly-concerned with “proprieties” and refuses to help with any chores requiring manual labor. Her prized possession is a carved walnut headboard that once belonged to her parents and reminds her of “the civilized world.” Because she refuses to do chores, Dad does them with Apache, an old man who was captured by Native Americans as a child and found by Robert when he was a scout in the U.S. Cavalry. The family also has a Mexican servant, Lupe, who was thrown out of her own home after having a child out of wedlock. Lily likes Lupe because she never feels sorry for herself.
Mom is a product of her environment and generation, and shows the dominant attitudes towards women’s roles in the early twentieth century. Lupe’s story reveals the consequences faced by women who step beyond these sexist boundaries—especially as Apache and Lupe come from societies even more marginalized than women of the white Casey family. Lily’s admiration of Lupe reflects a core part of Lily’s own character, and she will reject self-pity throughout the novel regardless of her circumstances.
Mom, on the other hand, feels like she had not signed up for life in Salt Draw when she married. The family moved there after Robert got shot and killed; his children argued about how to split up his herd of horses. Dad felt like he got cheated out of his share and is caught up in lawsuits against his elder brother over the herd. Lily notes that her father has a serious temper, in part due to his frustration with not being understood because of his speech impediment.
The wild environment of the American southwest is further established, as is the importance of owning land and the rationale behind Dad’s appreciation of animals over human beings. Dad must overcome his own personal hardships to support his family.
Salt draw is home to frequent dangerous flash flooding. When Lily was eight, a flood poured into the dugout. Mom refused to help them bail the dugout out, instead insisting on praying. As a result it collapsed, though Mom said this was “God’s will.” After the flood a neighbor abandoned his home, and the family quickly scavenged his lumber to build a new wooden house. Mom reasserts that the flood was God’s will.
Nature continues to control the family’s life. Walls again shows the contrast between Mom’s belief in fate and Lily’s belief in self-reliance, as well as the need to take advantage of any and every opportunity—something Lily will continue to do throughout her life whenever disaster strikes.
Despite the way his speech makes him sound, Lily asserts that Dad is smart and well-read. He is a prolific writer, frequently focused on the perils of industrialization and mechanization. He is also a critic of the treatment of Native Americans and Mexicans by the U.S. government. Believing himself to be a better teacher than the one-room schoolhouse, he tutors Lily, who in turn tutors her siblings.
This scene establishes Dad’s resistance to progress early on, an increasingly dangerous trait in the face of increasingly unavoidable technology. He passes his hatred of prejudice on to Lily, who admires those who treat people equally regardless of race, gender, or social status.
Mom is closest with Helen, who inherited her dainty features and constitution. She dotes on Buster as the future of the family, and who Lily notes is “one of the fastest and smoothest talkers in the country.” Mom is not sure what to do with Lily, who has too much “gumption” to be a real lady. Lily says that the brunt of housework often falls to her, and laments that, without electricity, running water, or plumbing, the work is endless.
Helen has inherited many of Mom’s passive “ladylike” qualities, which will ultimately spell her doom. Lily, on the other hand, will always bristle against prescribed societal roles for women. With hard work, she plans to prove her worth in a man’s world.
Lily reflects on helping Dad train the horses from the time she turned five. Dad tells Lily to always “think like a horse,” and also says horses are always driven by fear; the key to controlling one is convincing him you’ll protect him. Dad seems to have a private language of grunts and clicks to communicate with the horses, and he cracks the whip next to their ears rather than on their backs so as not to hurt them.
Lily learns to value hard work from a young age. Her connection to horses clearly runs deep, and she will carry the lessons from her interactions with the animals throughout her life—both as a teacher and later a mother, when she tries to tame her wild daughter Rosemary.
Lily says she was in charge of breaking the horses, a job made easier by the fact that they raised them from foals. She did this by riding them bareback until they “accepted their fate.” She was thrown often, though Dad said falling was an important part of life. Once, while riding an easily-spooked horse named Roosevelt, Lily was flung from the horse’s back and snapped her forearm. Mom was furious, but Dad set the bones. When Lily called the horse “dumb,” Dad insisted it was not the horse’s fault. Lily got back in the saddle after four weeks.
Walls shows Lily’s strength and her connection to horses, and emphasizes the importance of learning to fall—something that will save Lily’s life when she is later hit by a car in Chicago. Lily’s self-reliance is exemplified by her ability to pick herself up after falls and setbacks throughout her life, and she will always admire others who do the same.
Lily also feeds chickens and collects eggs. Once a week she goes to the nearest town to sell most of the eggs to Mr. Clutterbuck, the grocer, for one cent. He then sells them for two cents, telling Lily that this is how the world works. Lily unsuccessfully tries to barter, which Dad thinks will help her learn the “art of negotiation” and achieve her “Purpose in Life.” He has a “Theory of Purpose,” and believes anything that does not achieve that purpose is a waste—hence why he never buys the children toys. Lily recounts being hit in the stomach with a baseball while playing with her siblings and neighbors. The blow ruptured her appendix and she had to be taken to the hospital, but her father asserted that it was okay, because the appendix is a vestigial organ with no “Purpose.” If she wanted to risk her life again, she should do it for a “Purpose.”
Dad’s notion of “Purpose” contrasts with Mom’s blind faith in God’s will and helps Lily establish a sense of self-reliance; she knows she must find her Purpose for herself rather than rely on anyone else to show her the way. Lily will reflect on this need for purpose at multiple turning points throughout her life, and Dad’s insistence on turning everything in his children’s lives into lessons will further manifest in Lily’s own parenting style.
Lily notes that tornados are frequent in Salt Draw, and that the inhabitants fear them even more than flash floods. When she is eleven, a “monster” of a tornado strikes. Dad sets all the horses free so they have a chance to gallop away from the storm. Lily sees sunlight through the clouds and takes “that as a sign.” The family, plus Apache and Lupe, hide in the crawl space under the house. Mom grabs everyone’s hands to pray, and Lily asks God to forgive her “earlier lack of sincere faith.” They all survive.
Nature continues to be something that Lily’s family must respect and fear. Mom’s faith in God’s will continues to guide her actions. In her fear, Lily also momentarily puts her misgivings about this type of thinking aside, though only after she and her family have already done everything in their power to make it through the storm.
Upon emerging from the crawl space, they find that a windmill has smashed their roof. A furious Dad compares west Texas to hell, and, assuming he will not be tried again for “that phony old murder charge,” decides to move the family back to the Casey Ranch in New Mexico. The family packs up their carriages with everything they can, including the walnut headboard. Despite the hardship of life in west Texas, Lily knows she will miss it. For once she accepts her mother’s assertion that it is God’s will—or at least his way of telling them to move on.
Lily reinterprets the notion of God’s will, deciding to view it as a guide that they must follow on their own (in this instance, by leaving the inhospitable Salt Draw behind). The family’s relative lack of belongings emphasizes their poverty, and the move from Salt Draw represents the first major turning point in Lily’s life. She will remember the lessons of west Texas—to value hard work and respect nature—wherever she goes.