Jeannette recalls her earliest memory, at the age of three, as being on fire. Living in a trailer somewhere in southern Arizona (she can’t recall which town), she is cooking hot dogs while wearing a pink dress with a stiff tutu-like skirt, bought for her by her grandmother. She leans over to offer a hot dog to her dog Juju, but when standing back up she realizes that her dress has caught fire.
Mom and Dad’s parenting style is unusual, to be sure. Already we see the contrast between their itinerant lifestyle—Jeannette loses track of the towns where they live—and the stability and comfort symbolized by the dress bought by Grandma Smith. And in the fire we see the dangerous tension between those things
Jeannette screams for her mother’s help and Mom rushes into the room, throwing an army-surplus blanket around her. She then grabs Jeannette and her younger brother, Brian, rushes to the trailer next door, and asks to borrow her neighbor’s car to get to the hospital, since Dad has gone somewhere with theirs.
While Mom is carefree, she also keeps her head in an emergency, relying creatively on limited tools—like the army surplus blankets that are often all the family has for bedding. That Dad is not around hints at what will be a growing pattern later in the book.
At the hospital, the nurses cut off Jeannette’s beautiful pink dress and tell Mom that Jeannette’s condition is serious, but that she will live. The doctors complete a skin graft and wrap her body in bandages, which she says make her feel like a mummy.
While initially terrified, Jeannette adapts quickly to her new situation, even making jokes (a way to deal with disaster that, as we’ll see, she learns from Dad).
The nurses and doctors begin to ask Jeanette about how the burn took place, whether her parents have ever hurt her, and why a three-year-old would be cooking hot dogs. Jeannette responds matter-of-factly to each question: Mom believes she is mature for her age and often lets her cook for herself. The nurses still seem suspicious, making notes on their clipboard even while reassuring Jeannette that nothing is wrong.
For Jeannette, the way she and her family live is normal—it’s all she’s ever known. In the hospital is the first time she begins to understand that the way her parents are raising her isn’t necessarily the only way. Notice how her parent’s idea of giving Jeanette responsibility is mainstream society’s idea of parental recklessness.
Jeannette notices how clean, calm, and quiet the hospital is—far different from what she is used to. She enjoys having her own room and three meals a day, including dessert. The nurse even gives Jeanette her very first stick of chewing gum, and when she worries that she will have to throw it out to eat lunch, the nurse tells her she can have as many sticks as she’d like. Jeannette marvels that nothing ever seems to run out at the hospital.
Jeannette’s childhood is largely defined by poverty and lack, though before the hospital she certainly would not have thought that anything was amiss. The hospital provides an alternative to both the material lacks at home, and the general atmosphere of loudness and turbulence.
Jeannette’s family—Mom, Dad, Brian, and Jeannette’s older sister Lori— comes to visit, loudly interrupting the hospital’s calm. Mom is unhappy that Jeannette has tried chewing gum, calling it a “vulgar” and low-class habit.
The disorder of home life comes to interrupt Jeannette’s new normal. Though the family is obviously poor, Mom makes clear distinctions between certain kinds of “low-class” behavior and others. The Walls are not simply poor—though they are poor. Their poverty again is connected to a kind of alternative life philosophy.
On the family’s next visit to see Jeanette in the hospital, Dad tells Jeannette a story she knows well, about when Lori was stung by a scorpion. Since Dad didn’t trust hospitals, he took her to a Navajo witch doctor who cured it through chants and pastes. Dad thinks Mom should have done the same for Jeannette.
For Mom and Dad, modern hospitals, with their sterilized machines and technology, symbolize everything that is wrong with modern society. Until now, they’ve been able to simply choose their own alternatives.
The next time they visit, Brian’s head is wrapped in a bandage from falling off the couch and hitting his head. Mom and Dad decided not to take him to the hospital—one kid was enough. Dad begins to argue with the doctor about Jeannette’s bandages, saying the wounds need to “breathe.” When he threatens to hit the doctor, the family is asked to leave.
Mom and Dad are suspicious of specialist medicine and rely on what they might call a more intuitive approach to dealing with problems. At the same time, their family life seems full of craziness. Dad in particular reveals the trouble he has fitting in with and following the rules of modern society.
Several days later, Dad arrives and tells Jeannette to trust him: they are going to “check out, Rex Walls-style.” He takes her in his arms and runs down the hall, out of the hospital, and into the car where the rest of the family is waiting with the engine running. Dad reassures Jeannette that only now, having left the hospital, is she safe.
Even “checking out” of a hospital becomes a dramatic affair in the Walls family. In this case, they aren’t checking out at all. While this may not be evident to young Jeanette, Dad’s dramatics are hiding the fact that they are running out, and leaving town, in order to avoid paying the hospital bills.Dad frames this act as one of “saving” Jeanette, which he no doubt believes.
A few days after that, Jeannette decides to cook hot dogs again, and Mom praises her for getting “right back in the saddle.”
In some ways, Jeanette really is more self-sufficient than other kids. At the same time, letting your child who was nearly killed in a hot dog cooking accident cook hot dogs again seems irresponsible.
Following the accident, Jeannette becomes fascinated with fire, passing her finger through a candle flame, watching her neighbors burn trash, and stealing matches from Dad to light behind the family’s trailer—she enjoys waiting just until the fire seems about to go out of control before stamping it out. Once, she accidentally melts off her plastic doll Tinkerbell’s face. Jeannette imagines giving the doll a skin graft like the one the doctors performed on her.
Though Jeannette is attracted to order, she also retains a fascination for the borderline between order and turbulence, here symbolized by fire. Even so, her playing with fire is one way in which she can exert control over a situation that might seem uncontrollable—a situation—the beauty of being perched on the edge of chaos—that also defines her childhood more broadly.
A few months after this event, Dad arrives home in the middle of the night and announces that the family is leaving in fifteen minutes, and should take only the essentials. Jeannette asks if anything is wrong: when Dad responds by rhetorically asking, “Don’t I always take care of you,” Jeannette agrees that he does.
Jeannette adores and looks up to her father: she trusts that there is some kind of sense or system behind his crazy plans. She is a child. She trusts her Dad.
In the family car (christened the Blue Goose), the family’s cat Quixote begins to protest by growling and scratching. Dad, who says the family adventure isn’t open to anyone who doesn’t like to travel, and throws Quixote out the window. Jeannette begins to cry but Mom tells her not to be sentimental—it will be far more fun for Quixote to be a “wild” cat.
Dad does not always seem to think through his actions, and Mom goes along—in fact, often acts impulsively herself. In particular, Mom embraces the idea of “adventure,” even applying it to a house cat. Don Quixote is a famous madman of literature whose madness gave him a kind of romance and nobility along with making him ridiculously silly. Don Quixote’s wild ideas are not so different from Dad’s illusions.
That night, they sleep under the stars, and when Jeannette tells Lori that they could live like this forever, Lori responds, “I think we’re going to.”
While Jeannette is still enraptured by their exciting lifestyle, her older sister is beginning to grow weary of it.
According to Jeannette, Dad is sure FBI agents are after him, though Mom says that the FBI just sounds more exciting than the real chasers—bill collectors.
Though Mom embraces the wild life too, even she can see through some of Dad’s illusions.
We learn that the family has moved around between Nevada, Arizona, and California—the more remote the better—and Dad has a knack for getting any kind of job, like an electrician or mining engineer. Once he quits, is fired, or begins to have too many unpaid bills, the family moves again—always leaving in the middle of the night.
Both remarkably resourceful and often impatient or impetuous, Dad reveals himself to be a wanderer at heart—always on the lookout for the next great project, but never seriously considering that any one move will last or doing anything to make it last.
Once in awhile, the family stays with Mom’s mom, Grandma Smith, in her large house in Phoenix. Although Jeannette adores Grandma Smith, the stay never lasts long until her grandmother gets into an argument with Dad about his inability to hold down a job, and the family must pack up again.
Grandma Smith’s home symbolizes order and stability for Jeannette, who will come to look back longingly on the times she has spent there. Where Jeannette feels order and comfort, though, Dad only sees dry and sterile nagging, only feels hemmed in.
The kids rarely enroll in school, but Mom teaches them to read early on, as well as how to find water and survive on plants in the desert, while Dad teaches them math, Morse code, and pistol shooting.
Though they balk at participating in the “system,” Mom and Dad take responsibility for educating their kids in their own way.
In the desert, the siblings catch scorpions and snakes, hunt for gold, and collect rocks. They let themselves be knocked around by sandstorms when they can’t find anywhere to hide from them. Unlike other parents, Mom and Dad allow them to splash and dance outside in the thunderstorms, watching the lightning bolts as if they were fireworks.
In many ways, the Walls children adore the freedom that they are granted and have amazing life experiences thanks to Mom and Dad’s parenting quirks—even as these quirks often walk a fine line between adventure and recklessness.
Jeannette says that like the cactus, the family eats sporadically but fills up when they can. They grab a crate of cantaloupes that have fallen off a train, for instance. When the grape pickers in California go on strike, the family drives a hundred miles to the vineyards, where they are able to pick their own grapes and pile them into the car. For the next few weeks, they eat them for every meal.
This anecdote underlines the scrappy resourcefulness with which the Walls family confronts its precarious situation. Surrounded by nature, Jeannette naturally turns to the cactus as an apt metaphor for the family’s simultaneous independence and reliance on others.
Dad confides that his true ambition is to find gold to support his family—this is the real reason they move around so much. Jeannette believes him since Dad is an excellent fixer-upper. He is also an expert in math and physics, although his real love is for any kind of energy. To aid him in his search for gold, Dad invents a device called the Prospector, an angled wooden contraption to sort gold nuggets from stones and silt.
Dad’s various skills and talents prove dazzling to young Jeannette, for whom Dad’s claims cannot possibly be false or disingenuous. Rather than getting a regular job, Dad decides on the most wild, improbable path of making money. Jeannette, meanwhile, is unable to separate out the “gold” of Dad’s claims from the groundless “silt.”
Jeannette acknowledges that while Dad is “perfect,” things can turn frightening once he embarks on a drinking episode. But he is scariest when he drinks the “hard stuff,” as Mom calls it, and since he can only afford that when the family has money, his drinking is not too often an issue.
Here we get a hint at Dad’s alcoholism which will later become a major issue in Jeannette’s childhood. At this point, though, we see such episodes from a child’s eye: Jeannette still finds her dad “perfect” despite his occasional scariness. As a child, she still has illusions about him.
Dad’s bedtime stories are always about his own adventures. A marvelous storyteller, he keeps the kids enraptured with tales about an emergency landing in a cattle pasture while he was in the Air Force, or about wrestling a pack of wild dogs, or rescuing thousands of people by fixing a broken gate at the Hoover Dam.
Dad is always the hero of his own story. When adventure may not exist in real life, he is happy to dream it up, constructing a narrative that casts a glow over the kids’ otherwise precarious childhood.
Dad also returns again and again to the story of what he plans to do once he finds gold: build the Glass Castle in the desert, which would harness the sun’s energy and draw on Dad’s engineering know-how. Sometimes he takes out blueprints of the house that he has created, and the kids work on the floor plans for their own rooms.
Though the one thing Dad doesn’t enjoy talking about is his past as a youth in Welch, West Virginia, he does love to retell how he met Mom, when he was in the Air Force and Mom was back home with her parents near Fish Creek Canyon in Arizona. There, he and his fellow Air Force pilots were debating whether to jump from a cliff into a lake, when Mom shows up with a friend and dives right into the water. Dad jumps in afterward so as not to let her escape.
Dad’s reluctance to talk about his childhood, coupled with his eagerness to tell stories, suggests that he hopes to escape his own past by constructing an alternative to it. This particular story replaces Dad as the hero with Mom, and creates an origin myth that will serve as the basis for all their subsequent adventures.
Jeannette tells us that Dad left the Air Force because he wanted to strike gold; then Lori was born and a second daughter, Mary Charlene, who died at nine months old, followed by Jeannette and Brian. While Mary Charlene’s death doesn’t seem to trouble Mom much—God saw fit to take her away, she says—any mention of Mary Charlene makes Dad somber and stony. Mom says that her death was when Dad started drinking and having trouble holding down a job.
Mom doesn’t seem to worry about the same things that other mothers do (recall her attitude to three-year-old Jeannette cooking even after the fire). While Dad is similarly carefree, here we get a glimpse of a darker side to him—as well as how past events can impact a person’s actions and character.
On the way to Las Vegas, where Dad has decided to move to make some money gambling, Mom and Dad stop at the Bar None Bar for hours and leave the three kids outside. Jeannette asks Lori how many places they’ve lived, and Lori asks what she means by living somewhere: “If you spend one night in some town, did you live there? What about two nights? Or a whole week?” Jeannette decides that it counts if you unpack everything. Her most vivid memories, however, are of the inside of the family’s cars, and as the sisters count they eventually lose track.
Without putting down roots anywhere, the Walls parents seem to want to avoid the task of constructing a permanent home. As a result, the young Jeannette and Lori are confused as to what even defines a home. Here, they imagine it as a physical place characterized by length of time spent in it, and ultimately decide that this kind of home is foreign to them.
When Mom and Dad finally come back, Dad continues to drive while drinking beer in the other hand. At one sharp curve, the door opens and Jeannette falls out of the car. Scratched and bloody, initially just shocked but then upset, she waits for her parents by the railroad tracks. At last she sees the car (this one is called the Green Caboose) returning for her. Dad cleans Jeannette up and calls her bloody nose a “snot locker,” which the whole family laughs about for the rest of the trip.
The darker side of Mom and Dad’s sense of adventure emerges here. Jeannette thinks it’s entirely plausible that her parents could just decide to leave her behind, since she isn’t up to the adventure. When they do return, Dad retakes the role of responsible father, and again shows a knack for turning a frightening situation into a funny one with his jokes. They are always on the edge between fun and recklessness, chaos and adventure.
In Las Vegas, where the family stays for a month, the kids play in the casinos while Mom and Dad are playing blackjack. Dad makes lots of money and the kids get new clothes and eat chicken-fried steaks at air-conditioned restaurants. A few days later, though, Dad says that the casino owners have realized he has a system, and the family has to “skedaddle,” as Dad likes to say.
Dad’s skills would not exactly be at home on a resume, but they’re often enough to support the family and even sometimes give the kids coveted treats. Fleeing despite his success at the casinos, Dad reveals his suspicion of the “system” to be partly fantasy but also based on the reactions of mainstream authorities or powers to his own very real actions.
They head to San Francisco, where they stay in a hotel off the beaten path that Dad calls a “flophouse,” but which Mom says has “character.”
Mom tends to see beauty where others see only the bleak or grim—a quality that both helps her survive and at times verges on the delusional.
A few days later, Jeannette wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of fire. Dad rushes into the children’s bedroom and carries them outside before helping to fight the fire. Jeannette wonders if this fire is connected to the one that burned her when she was three, and concludes that in her life, a fire could erupt at any moment.
Fire is a potent symbol of the delicate balance between order and turbulence in Jeannette’s life. Within this framework, Dad serves here as the knight in shining armor—yet it is Dad who put the children in the position of being in a house that was likely to burn down. He saved them from danger; yet he put them in danger.
After the hotel burns down, the family spends a few days living on the beach, until a policeman tells them it is illegal to sleep there. Jeannette thinks that the policeman is nice enough, but Dad calls him the “gestapo” and says that it’s far better for the family to move from the city back to the desert, even though they’ve lost the money Dad made from gambling.
Jeannette is beginning to explicitly question her parents’ flouting of the “system.” While Dad is disgusted with anyone in a position of official authority, Jeannette grasps that there is a different set of rules her family has simply chosen not to adhere to.
On the way from San Francisco to the Mojave Desert, Mom sees an ancient Joshua tree in a spot between the desert and the mountain and asks Dad to pull over. The tree has grown in the direction of the wind, leaning forward instead of growing upright toward the sky, but its sturdy roots have prevented it from tipping over. Though Jeannette finds the tree ugly, Mom adores it, and stops to make a painting of it.
Again, Mom manages to find interest and beauty in what others simply don’t notice. Others might find the Joshua tree gnarled and ugly—Jeannette, for instance, sees it as “imperfect”—but for Mom this makes the tree worth treasuring. Mom’s life philosophy holds the “imperfect” up as the true beauty, and she prizes beauty above stability, comfort, etc.
Leaving her and the kids, Dad continues driving to explore the area and comes across a town called Midland, made up only of a cluster of dilapidated houses and trailers. Seeing a for-rent sign on one of them, he decides that this place will do for the family’s next stay.
The way the family chooses where to live is often entirely arbitrary. Though one place is as good as another, they do tend to trend towards the isolated and run-down.
In Midland, Jeannette is afraid of the coyotes and other animals in the desert, and one night becomes sure that there is a monster under her bed. Dad tells Jeannette (though he calls her “Mountain Goat,” because when they climb mountains together she never falls down) that it must be Demon, whom he’s been chasing after for years. The two look for Demon throughout the whole house, and Dad tells her a long story about the time he fought Demon by hand and saved an entire town.
It’s understandable why Jeannette holds her father in such high esteem. Dad’s stories may verge on the fantastical, but his ability to cook up tales also enables him to reassure Jeannette in creative, exciting ways, like this hunt for “Demon.” Dad’s nickname for Jeannette further underlines their unique bond and Dad’s conviction that Jeannette is on his side.
Since Dad threw the cat Quixote out the window, the family has collected a number of others. One day, when they have become too numerous to take care of, Dad places some of them into a sack, loads them into the car, and drives off to a pond to throw them in. Jeannette begins to cry, and Mom comforts her by saying that the cats should be grateful for the extra time the family has given them to live.
Mom and Dad can be both unusually altruistic and coolly pragmatic—indeed, they seem not to see any contradiction between the two. Their attitude towards the cats is an extreme example of their loose interpretation of “responsibility”—one that Jeannette already is intuitively unable to grasp.
While Dad has secured a job digging out gypsum at the town’s mine, Mom works on paintings, sketches, and sculptures while also writing and illustrating stories (spell-checked by seven-year-old Lori). The kids often accompany her to paint the Joshua tree again and again. When Jeannette announces a plan to dig up a small sapling and replant it so that it grows straight up rather than gnarled, Mom rebukes her, saying, “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.
In Midland, the family seems to have reached a kind of stability, where their dreams—Dad’s to make money, Mom’s to become an artist—seem finally attainable. Mom’s opinion of the Joshua tree reflects her notion of turbulence as necessary and important, in art and in life, whereas Jeannette sees such struggle as needlessly painful.
Jeannette recounts how she never believed in Santa Claus, since Mom and Dad couldn’t afford presents; instead they told the kids about the other parents’ deception.
Jeannette’s parents often find ways to mask their poverty with games and stories, but they also sincerely believe in their own version of life—they think other people value the wrong things; live the wrong way.
Before this year’s Christmas, in Midland, Dad is fired from the gypsum mine after arguing with the foreman.
Dad’s loathing of authority doesn’t fit well in a workplace.
On Christmas Eve, he takes each kid out into the desert to look at the stars—one of Dad’s favorite scientific topics. Wealthy apartment owners in cities, he says, miss out because of how polluted the air is.
There are other ways to define wealth, Dad believes, than fancy apartments and sophisticated city life.
Dad tells Jeannette to choose a star for her Christmas present. She picks the one shining the brightest, which turns out to be not a star but a planet, Venus. It only looks brighter because it’s closer.
Dad is pragmatic (since a star costs nothing) but his gift is in many ways priceless. Jeannette will be able to see Venus wherever the family wanders.
That night, Dad explains the significance of the stars each kid has chosen: Betelgeuse, a soon-to-be supernova, Rigel, a star in Orion, and Venus, a much hotter version of Earth. They all laugh about the kinds of Christmas presents other kids’ get, which are bound to end up unused or broken.
Dad’s scientific knowledge makes his gift even more special for the kids. Venus will become a touchstone for Jeannette, who will use it to orient herself when feeling uneasy or out of sorts. And in many ways the Walls critique of mainstream gift giving is right on, with the giving of things given primacy over actual connection.
One day the family departs Midland for a larger town, Blythe, California, where Mom, who is pregnant, can give birth. On the way, Mom and Dad start arguing about how many months Mom has been pregnant for—she claims that she has carried her children up to fourteen months, and Dad calls that “bullshit.” They start yelling at each other until Mom reaches over to the driver’s seat, slams the brakes, and races out of the car. Dad drives into the desert, following and cursing at her until he has her cornered against the rocks. He grabs her and throws her back into the car.
Mom and Dad do concede that they can’t be completely self-sufficient, such as in childbirth. While Dad is a non-conformist, he does believe in the laws of science as strongly as Mom believes in art. All of this seems humorous, but Mom and Dad aren’t joking. Their tempers combined with their unconventional ideas mean that things can turn dangerous and violent quickly and unexpectedly.
By the time they get to Blythe, Mom and Dad have made up. They find a place to rent in the “LBJ Apartments” with mostly Latin American migrant worker families. Mom tells Jeannette that the initials stand for the current president, a “crook.”
As quickly as things spin out of control, they can also settle back into normal—normal meaning constant searches for apartments and Mom’s suspicion of the “system.”
In Blythe, Jeannette is now obliged to wear shoes and attend school, where she makes few friends because of her advanced reading ability and eagerness to raise her hand in class.
Jeannette has missed out on much of the social cues needed to get along in grade school, though it’s also worth noting that Jeanette’s lack of schooling hasn’t affected her negatively in terms of academics. Mom’s unorthodox teaching has worked.
One day, four Mexican girls follow Jeannette home and beat her up. When she gets home, she tells Dad that there were six of them and she fought back hard.
With Dad’s example to guide her, Jeannette thinks fighting tooth and nail is laudable and not fighting back shameful.
The next day Brian waits in hiding for the girls to attack again, and the two siblings fight them off as best they can.
The Walls children, lacking long-term friends outside the home, have to stick together. They will continue to stick together, even as they grow up and their primary antagonists shift from people outside their family to their own Mom and Dad.
Mom gives birth two months after arriving in Blythe. Jeannette, five at the time, is deemed mature enough to hold the baby, and promises to protect her.
Mom again trusts Jeannette at surprisingly young ages. Jeannette’s promise to take responsibility for the baby will return to haunt her in later chapters.
Mom doesn’t want to name the baby before studying it for weeks. Jeannette suggests Rosita after a girl at school, but Mom calls that name too “Mexican.” She eventually decides on Maureen.
Though Mom claims not to be prejudiced, she does stick to a certain hierarchy in which the Hispanic families around them are not in the same category.
A few months after the birth, police try to pull over Dad as he is driving the family because the brake lights of the car aren’t working. Since he has no registration, insurance, or legitimate license plate, he attempts to evade the police, careening around the city with the family before hiding in a garage. They abandon the car there.
While not a major city, Blythe is a big enough town that Dad can’t last that long outside the system before he’s forced to pay its dues, or else give something up—this won’t be their last abandoned car.
The next day Dad decides it’s time to leave Blythe, this time for a Nevada town called Battle Mountain that supposedly is full of undiscovered gold.
This move accomplishes two things: it gets Dad out of “civilization,” and brings him a bit closer to his grand plan to become rich.
The family rents a U-Haul and Mom tells the kids to keep quiet—it’s illegal for them to ride in the back. After a few hours, it becomes cold and the kids grow uncomfortable. Then the back doors of the truck swing open, and the kids have to cling onto the furniture, until a car behind starts honking enough for Dad to pay attention and stop to lock the doors.
There has been a fine balance between Mom and Dad being maverick parents with their own way of doing things and being recklessly irresponsible in providing for the safety of their children. This is obviously one of the latter, when they make choices based on their poverty that nearly kill their kids.
Battle Mountain, originally a mining town, is mainly composed of one main street with a single streetlight. The family moves into an old railroad depot with converted offices, waiting rooms, and ticket booths. The family can’t afford furniture, so they drag large industrial spools from the railroad tracks to turn into tables and chairs. Cardboard boxes become their beds, which the kids think of as an adventure.
Their new home reflects both their poverty and their creativity. Mom’s language has permeated the kids’ thoughts about their life, and they are still young enough to embrace the adventure.
Mom decides to buy a piano for the house, for which Dad creates a pulley system to bring into the house with a pickup. But Mom panics and hurtles forward, dragging the piano into the backyard—where they decide to keep it. Meanwhile, Dad gets a new job as an electrician in a mine, which leaves his afternoons free for cards and logic games. The kids’ favorite way to pass the time is by exploring in the desert and finding mineral deposits like silver and barite. Mom and Dad teach them how to identify each mineral.
Mom may be poor, but she thinks art is important. The families dance on the knife’s edge of chaos and fun applies even to getting a piano into the house, and when things go wrong Mom and Dad just improvise. Meanwhile, it’s clear why the kids might find their non-conformist father so fun and amazing, and the kids joy in their life and interest in science suggests that their unconventional upbringing has some merits.
If there’s enough money, the family goes to the Owl Club on Sundays. Dad dismisses its slot machines as being for “suckers”—he prefers poker and pool. Everyone at the Owl Club’s bar recognizes Dad.
Dad often uses his obvious intelligence to other ends than a career—poker and pool are largely games of skill, and it works out well that they are often played at bars.
The kids order hamburgers, milk shakes, and onion rings—always so much that they have trouble walking home.
Jeannette describes each food item carefully, making clear how precious abundant food is for her.
At the commissary each week, Mom buys basics like flour, onions, and potatoes, rather than prepared foods like other “brainwashed” Americans.
Mom’s non-conformist ideals are in some ways ahead of the times, prefiguring today’s natural-food craze.
Instead of drinking, Dad stays home with the family, and after dinner everyone reads together with a dictionary nearby in case the kids need to look up words.
The early days at Battle Mountain are a glimpse at what a normal, stable life could look like for the Walls, and shows the family’s general intelligence.
While Mom reads literature like Dickens and Faulkner, Dad reads science and math books and biographies.
Their reading choices reflect Mom’s and Dad’s distinct personalities and interests.
Jeannette is enrolled in second grade with a teacher named Miss Page, but already knows most of what is taught. Dad makes her do her math homework in binary numbers as a challenge. One day she forgets to translate them back into Arabic numbers, and Miss Page, who disapproves, makes her stay late to redo the task.
Here, Dad’s unconventional parenting is favorably contrasted to Miss Page’s attitude, which is close-minded and anti-intellectual.
Jeannette meets other kids around the “Tracks” whose families are just as poor—here, money doesn’t matter.
Rather than the discomfort of dealing with class differences, this homogeneity is a relief.
Jeannette starts a rock collection from what she finds in the desert, with granite, obsidian, turquoise, and what they think is gold—but is only fool’s gold. She sometimes has rock sales but charges six hundred dollars per rock; her only customer is Dad, and she lets him have the rock on credit.
Jeanette’s rock collection attests to her interest in order, in contrast to her parents. Though the kid’s mistaking fool’s gold for gold has some resonance in their belief of things like the Glass Castle. Dad buying the rocks on credit is a fun joke, and yet mirrors how he often gets by without paying for things.
Jeannette also likes going to the dump with Brian, where they collect batteries, oil drums, and paint cans for science experiments in the “lab,” an abandoned shed. One day they drop matches into these instruments and the shed catches on fire. Jeannette escapes and finds Dad, who pulls out Brian.
Jeannette and Brian seem to have inherited some aspects of their father’s fascination with science. Their “lab” is only possible, though, since no adults are around, and nearly leads to disaster.
Afterward, Dad seems not mad but contemplative. He points to the fire and shows Brian and Jeannette the point at which the flames melt into a shimmery heat. In physics, he says, this is the boundary between turbulence and order: “a place where no rules apply, or at least they haven’t figured ‘em out yet.”
When the kids want money, they find beer cans and bottles or scrap metal to be redeemed for a few cents, then money in hand go to the candy store next to the Owl Club, where they linger until the owner yells at them to leave. Brian usually settles on SweeTarts and Jeannette on Sugar Daddies, since, though she loves chocolate, it doesn’t last long enough.
Jeannette and her siblings find ingenious ways to make pocket money, though the possibilities money offers are so novel that it’s difficult to make a choice. As usual, Jeannette’s detailed descriptions of food or toys reveal how precious they are to her.
On their way home, they sneak past the Green Lantern, which Mom calls a “cathouse,” though Jeannette only sees women in short dresses, and men ducking inside. Mom only says that “bad things” happen there.
Here a line can be drawn between the perspective of Jeannette, the protagonist and narrator, who has no idea what a “cathouse” is, and Walls the author, who wants the reader to know.
One day Jeannette dares Brian to talk to one of the women on the porch. He tells Jeannette that the woman said all that happens in the Green Lantern is that women are nice to the men that enter. He thinks the woman was nice, and afterwards always waves to the woman he spoke to and the others.
We’re not sure if Jeannette is getting the whole story about what Brian talked about, but in any case his conversation doesn’t clear up what the women do in the Green Lantern.
The Walls’ house is always filled with stray animals and pets. The pets are only given leftovers to eat rather than pet food in order to promote “self-sufficiency,” as Mom says. She also refuses to kill flies in order to allow nature to “take its course,” rather than buying a No-Pest Strip like Jeannette’s friend’s Carla’s family.
Mom loves “self-sufficiency,” applying it to pets as well as humans. Her desire to keep things natural often causes her to give up larger issues of cleanliness and order.
That winter, Dad brings the family to the “Hot Pot,” a natural sulfur spring. Jeannette is unused to large bodies of water and they frighten her. As Jeannette wades in, Dad suddenly drags her out further and then pushes her away. After flailing around, Dad grabs her back, but then throws her back in multiple times, Jeannette bobbing and gasping, until she can swim on her own. He explains afterward that he was teaching a lesson—sink or swim.
One day, Jeannette arrives home from exploring to learn from Lori that Dad has lost his job. Dad, though, claims he just wants to devote his time to looking for gold.
As usual, we hear a different story from Dad than from others; his, though, is usually consistent with what he describes as his grand plans.
The family now has less money for food, though sometimes Dad comes home with money from odd jobs, or returns with vegetables in his arms. Soon, though, Dad begins to disappear, and Jeannette wonders if he is ashamed at not being able to provide for the family.
Despite the loss of his job, Dad doing what he can to bring home food suggests that Dad wants to be a responsible father who takes care of his family. Jeanette’s psychological guess about her father seems pretty astute, and shows her growing maturity and begins to puncture the grand stories Dad spins about himself.
Jeannette begins to steal inconspicuous pieces of food from other kids’ lunch boxes at schools. One day, Lori and Jeannette eat a stick of margarine mixed with sugar. Mom gets mad, saying she needed it for bread, but Jeannette tells her that they have no flour and no money to pay the gas company. She complains that she was hungry—in doing so she breaks the family’s unspoken rule, to pretend everything is an adventure.
As the children grow up and understand more, they cease to be as willing (or to be as able) to go along with their parents’ sense of their poor life as an adventure. Hunger isn’t fun. Hunger isn’t an adventure. Jeanette knows that she is stealing just to avoid being hungry.
Mom turns red and yells at Jeannette not to blame her. That night, she gets into a fight with Dad, accusing him of spending all his time at the Owl Club. Dad suggests Grandma Smith loan them money to leach gold out of rock with cyanide. Mom says they should just go live in Phoenix with her mother, in that case. Mom says she is tired of Dad’s dreams, illusions, and empty promises. This argument, unusually, goes on and on and gets louder and louder. Neighbors begin to gather outside the house.
The cracks in Mom and Dad’s marriage begin to show. Mom’s anger and refusal to be blamed means she thinks Dad is the one to blame, and for the first time Mom reveals her thoughts about Dad’s promises and dreams—that they are just empty promises. The argument about Grandma Smith is an argument about being dependent. Mom is saying that if they’re borrowing money from Grandma then they might as well just give in and live with her. But this also raises the point in the readers—and probably Jeanette and her siblings mind—that they’ve been stealing food to eat when they could have gone to live with Grandma Smith all this time.
Suddenly, Mom appears from the second-floor window, upside down and held by the ankles by Dad. The crowd starts to laugh, and the Walls children, who feel ashamed, run up and help drag her back in. They all try to comfort their parents.
Again, Mom and Dad’s arguments can turn violent and dramatic on a dime; since they live in a small town, all this drama takes place essentially in the open.
The next day, Mom applies to a job at the Battle Mountain Intermediate School, and is immediately hired and assigned to Lori’s class. She is against rules and doesn’t care how her students act or work. The administrators are suspicious, but many students start performing much better.
Mom’s job will leave her no longer helpless as the stay-at-home half of the couple. She brings her household philosophies right with her to the schoolroom, where they seem to work on some children.
But Mom hates teaching, mainly because her mother was a teacher and “lacked faith” in Mom’s artistic ability. She worries she is giving up on her dream.
We see in part why Mom clings so hard to her desire to be an artist, as well as her loathing of all that is normal and conformist.
The school principal, Miss Beatty, especially disapproves of Mom’s teaching tactics. Afraid Mom will be fired, Lori, Brian, and Jeannette start helping out with classroom tasks and homework grading.
Jeannette, Lori, and Brian are older than their age, aware of adult money problems and able to pitch in to deal with them.
Lori corrects Mom’s spelling—she loves reading and writing and, according to Jeannette, is brilliant.
Lori’s smarts will become a common theme in later sections.
With Mom’s new job, the family now has food at home, at least until the end of the month. But Dad demands that Mom turn the money over to him, and she can’t seem to say no, though she tries various tactics to hide her paychecks from him. On one payday, Dad sees through Mom’s ruse and takes the family to the Owl Club, where he orders expensive steaks for everyone.
Though not stated outright, it is hinted here that Dad is taking the families money to go drink. So Mom and Dad have a non-conformist philosophy that contributes to their poverty, but Dad is also emerging as an alcoholic who drinks away the family’s money. Then he atones through flashy behavior, like buying steaks.
Another day, Dad asks Brian and Jeannette why they’re not carrying lunch bags to school. When they say there’s no food in the house, Dad acts shocked. Later he brings a large bag of food into the cafeteria and says to them, “Have I ever let you down?” Brian whispers, “Yes,” though Dad doesn’t hear him.
Brian, for his part, is beginning to doubt Dad’s beguiling narrative. Dad will repeat this question often, but at this moment Brian feels he must respond with the truth, though he can’t bring himself to say it loud enough at this point for his father to hear.
Lori and Brian agree that Dad spends more money on alcohol than on family necessities, but Jeannette defends his research on cyanide. She spends more time with Dad than they do, and he shows her his graphs and charts he’ll use to find gold. She has promised him (and herself) not to lose faith in him.
A few months after Mom takes the teaching job, Brian and Jeannette pass the Green Lantern and a woman smoking a cigarette—Ginger—calls out to Brian. He tells Jeannette that for his birthday, Dad had let him pick out a Sad Sack comic book before having dinner with Ginger at the Nevada Hotel. Afterward, they went upstairs, and Dad and Ginger went into a bedroom while Brian stayed outside to read.
Again, we see this scene from a child’s perspective—Dad may not be paying enough attention to Brian on his birthday, but the Jeannette recounting the story has little sense that Dad has done something wrong. Nevertheless, the Green Lantern continues to symbolize the mysteries of adult life for both Jeannette and Brian.
Brian clearly dislikes Ginger so much that Jeannette suspects there is more to the story. She asks Brian if he learned what the women do in the Green Lantern, but he stares off into the distance and doesn’t answer her question.
Growing up takes place at different speeds and on different registers. While Brian has probably begun to suspect Dad’s infidelity, Jeannette is not yet able to. The reader, of course, knows what’s going on and Dad continues to seem less charming and more manipulative and destructive.
The family stays in Battle Mountain for nearly a year, and even if people tend to make fun of it for being ugly and desolate, Jeannette considers it her first real home. She thinks her family’s days on the road have ended.
At this point, it is length of time and familiarity rather than anything else that define a home for Jeannette. She is still innocent and childish in her believe that the family will stay settled in this place.
Just after Jeannette turns eight, she meets a new neighbor, Billy Deel, who is three years older. Billy has a reputation for killing neighborhood animals, and he’s spent time as a juvenile delinquent for stealing. Billy claims to other kids that Jeannette is his girlfriend, and though she denies it, she’s secretly pleased.
Despite her embrace of order and stability, Jeannette cannot resist being attracted to someone who personifies the opposite—though this attraction is certainly ambivalent.
One day, Billy takes her inside his house to show her something “funny.” Inside there is no furniture, just a room with two mattresses and a TV. Billy points out his father, passed out on one of the mattresses, and laughs that his father has wet himself.
Though Billy’s household situation does not differ much from Jeannette’s, his attitude towards his father is entirely unlike Jeannette’s towards Dad.
Jeannette is upset and says that you should never laugh at your own father. Billy responds that Jeannette’s father is no better than his—just a drunk. Though Jeannette thinks of the Glass Castle and her Christmas star, she knows these things won’t convince Billy Deel of anything.
This is the first time Jeannette is brutally confronted with another narrative concerning her father, and the first time she realizes that her father’s stories won’t translate easily to the world aside their family (and therefore perhaps that it is her family’s—or her—perspective that is wrong).
At dinner back with her family, Jeannette makes fun of Billy’s dad and their run-down house, but Mom tells Jeannette to show more compassion—people aren’t born that way, but become delinquent if they’re unloved as children.
Mom’s attitude is fraught with significance for her, Dad, and the children, each of whom is profoundly affected by what they’ve experienced as children.
As a result, Jeannette tells Billy she’ll be his friend but not girlfriend. A week later, Billy comes up to her while playing with other kids and gives her a turquoise and silver ring, which used to be his mom’s. She says she’ll keep it but not wear it.
Whether with Dad or others, Jeannette would rather appease than confront. She is also clearly torn between her desire not to lead Billy on, and her attraction to pretty things.
A few weeks later, while playing hide-and-seek, Billy crawls into Jeannette’s hiding place, an abandoned shed. He asks if she knows what they do in the Green Lantern, and says they start by kissing. He tries to kiss her, and though she resists he manages to get on top of her and pull on her shorts. Jeannette bites him on the ear and he hits her in the nose, making enough noise that the other kids run to open the shed. Billy claims he kissed Jeannette but she denies it.
The Green Lantern reemerges as a motif vaguely suggesting adult activities, though Jeannette cannot yet grasp what they are. Here, though, the motif becomes concrete and even violent. While Jeannette might not understand the implications of Billy’s actions, she is quick-witted enough to know how to fight against them.
The following day, Jeannette goes to Billy’s house and finds him in the driver’s seat of an abandoned car in the back. She tells him she will no longer be his friend or keep his ring. She drops the ring in his lap, but as she turns to leave Billy throws it at her and shouts that he raped her.
For Jeannette, Billy has betrayed their friendship severely enough to discount the ring that she so coveted. Billy, for his part, is acutely aware of the power of words to harm, even if his understanding of them is only partial.
Jeannette responds only, “Big deal!” When she returns home, she looks up the word in the dictionary, but still doesn’t quite grasp the meaning. She knows only that it means nothing good, and doesn’t want to ask Dad.
Mom and Dad’s desire to let the kids figure things out on their own, including unfamiliar words or situations, doesn’t seem to work as well in Jeannette’s new drama.
The day after that, Billy comes to meet Lori, Brian, and Jeannette at her house and calls out Jeannette’s name. Lori tries to tell him to leave but sees that he has a gun, though Brian says it must be just a BB gun. Billy says to Jeannette, “I told you you’d be sorry,” and starts shooting at each of them.
An adolescent crush with adult overtones has now become a fully blown crisis. Notably, adults have been absent from all these scenes, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.
Lori, as the oldest, runs upstairs and comes down with Dad’s real pistol. Billy goads her into shooting, and she pulls the trigger in his general direction. When Jeannette opens her eyes, he has disappeared, and the three of them run after Billy, who is tearing along the railroad tracks. They shoot after each other a few more times before Billy races away down the tracks.
Lori’s coldblooded calm comes in handy once again, and is mimicked by the straightforward, matter-of-fact tone that Walls adopts and that contrasts sharply with the intensity of the action she describes.
It isn’t long before a police car with Mom and Dad inside parks outside the house. Dad asks them what’s happened, and Jeannette says they acted in self-defense—Dad had always told her that was justifiable.
Without her parents present to lay down rules, Jeannette has still adopted some of her parents’ worldview and knows how to apply it when it suits her.
The policeman said that the neighbors had reported kids shooting at each other, but he doesn’t seem interested in hearing about the details. He says that the entire family must show up at the courthouse the next day with Billy’s family.
What to Jeannette is a subtle, complex story that needs to be fleshed out, is to the policeman just another example of lawless adolescents. The Walls’ world and the “system” clash once again.
Mom and Dad spend the rest of the day whispering together upstairs. That night, they come down to tell the kids that they’re leaving for Phoenix immediately.
Once again, Mom and Dad avoid facing interaction with the “system” by running away.
Jeannette runs to get her rock collection, since Dad has told the kids they can only bring one thing each. Lori counters that the collection is more than one thing—in that logic, she could bring her entire book collection rather than just one book. Dad agrees, saying that the rocks are too heavy. He’s not in the mood for an intellectual debate like usual.
With only a few material possessions, the Walls kids are profoundly attached to them, and find it difficult to let go each time they must pick up and move again. Dad’s quick agreement with Lori attests to just how serious this situation is for the family.
On the way to Phoenix, Jeannette reminisces about her trips to Grandma Smith’s white house in Phoenix, where she assumes they’re heading. It has green shutters, Persian carpets, and a grand piano, and Grandma Smith would brush and cut Jeannette’s hair as she smelled the bottles of perfumes.
The way Jeannette describes Grandma Smith’s house suggests calm, order, and cleanliness—a kind of lifestyle and, importantly, a kind of home she hasn’t found with her parents.
Grandma Smith, though once a flapper, became a teacher after she had children and taught in the same one-room schoolhouse where Mom went—which Mom hated. Mom also never liked all Grandma Smith’s rules, like about cooking, dressing, managing money, and more.
We can see echoes of Grandma Smith, as well as ways Mom would rebel against her, in Mom’s own character.
Jeannette, on the other hand, is Grandma Smith’s favorite grandchild, and loves all the rules, such as having to wash and comb her hair before breakfast.
Meanwhile, Jeannette’s love of rules constitutes a reaction to her own mother.
On the way to Phoenix, Jeannette asks if the family is going to stay with Grandma Smith. Mom says no—that Grandma Smith has died. Though “officially” from leukemia, Mom claims it was actually radioactive poisoning from the government’s nuclear bomb testing.
In a moment, Jeannette’s idealized vision of the life to which she’s heading disintegrates. That her parents never told her this is shocking, cruel, and unthinking. Meanwhile, Mom’s conspiracy theories continue to assume a corrupt, secretive government.
Mom is surprised when Jeannette gets upset. They’re going to Phoenix to live in Grandma Smith’s house, she says. Mom will start an art studio and use her inheritance to buy supplies. Mom tells Jeannette it’ll be an adventure. She calls herself an “excitement addict.”
As we saw with Mary Charlene, Mom doesn’t seem to be affected by death like others are. Her incorrigible optimism can be both admirable and, as in this case, astounding.
The house is enormous, with fourteen rooms (the kids count them) and orange and palm trees out back. Their neighbors are Mexicans and native Americans who have divided their houses into apartments, after the white residents moved into the suburbs.
Grandma Smith’s house ad its surroundings testify to a changing American landscape, though the fact that the Wallses can inherit this house despite their poverty speaks to their enduring racial privilege.
The kids enroll in a public school called Emerson, in a well-off neighborhood full of banana trees—when in season, the kids eat them free for lunch. They all are enrolled in gifted reading classes.
Jeannette’s mention of the banana trees is a detail that reflects her idea of Phoenix as paradise, including her status as a gifted student at school.
When the kids have their first eye and ear exams, the nurse tells Mom that Lori needs glasses. Mom initially refuses, saying glasses are like crutches and eyes just need exercise, but Emerson requires Lori get them to be able to enroll, so she caves in. When Lori’s glasses arrive, she announces that she can see each leaf on a tree several dozen feet away. When Jeannette responds that she can also see them, Lori bursts into tears.
There have been moments when the narrative has shown how Mom or Dad’s non-conformist ideas were valid, or even better than mainstream practices. Not here. Mom’s ideas about eyes and self-sufficiency are not only buts, they have deprived her eldest daughter of the ability to see the world clearly. Lori bursting into tears may be partly in joy about what she can now see, but is also about realizing what her parents ideas have forced her to endure. Note how, before glasses, Lori hadn’t known what she’d been missing—a metaphor that one could apply to the Walls kids’ understanding of their own childhoods.
Later, though, Lori starts drawing and painting the details on the house and landscapes on the desert. She decides to follow Mom’s footsteps and become an artist.
On one hand, Lori decides to follow her mother’s path. On the other, had Mom not been forced to get her glasses, Lori would never have had the chance.
Mom begins to set up her art studio and uses much of her inheritance to buy oil paints, acrylics, silk screens, pastels, and more materials. The kids pore over old magazines to find possible subject material to cut out and paste into Mom’s reference binder.
Mom’s use of money is cavalier, reckless. Yet her exuberant pursuit of her passions is also exciting, even for the kids.
Mom also writes stories and plays. While she never has anything accepted, she sometimes receives personalized rejection letters, which she pins up on the wall.
Like any struggling artist, Mom perseveres through rejection—one quality that Walls seems to accept as admirable in her mother. Yet one can also ask whether Mom’s dreams are any more realistic than Dad’s.
Dad gets a job as an electrician and, as part of a union, makes good, steady money. After his first payday, he buys three new bicycles for Lori, Brian, and Jeannette—their first. Jeannette marvels at the seat, purple color, and chrome handlebars with tassels hanging off.
Jeannette has a habit of describing her favorite possessions down to the last intricate detail, as if still marveling that she owns them. Dad’s choice to spend money on the kids is, at least here, contrasted with Mom’s choice to spend her money on herself.
The kids spend many hours with Lori as navigator (with a map procured from a gas station) biking down central Avenue to Woolworth’s, to Phoenix university where they play tennis, and to the Civic Center to read.
Recall the Wallses’ activities with other kids in Battle Mountain—the mere change of home has transformed the way they spend their free time.
They also love answering the telephone at home—also the first one they’ve owned—using the electric washing machine, and playing with Grandma Smith’s old record player. Mom and Dad dance to old albums, from gospel music to opera.
With detail piled upon detail, the description of the Walls family’s time in Phoenix grows increasingly idyllic, even as it is structured around “things” like appliances and games.
Nevertheless, the house begins to be infested with cockroaches thanks to Mom’s lack of interest in cleaning. Mom doesn’t want to poison the family with chemical roach spray, so at night the family hides in wait with shoes and attacks the roaches in the kitchen. Termites also start to chew through the wood, which Dad fixes by hammering his beer cans shut and nailing them over each hole.
Even a fancy inherited home won’t solve all the family’s problems. Mom and Dad’s irresponsibility turns even this nice home into an infested mess. Dad then “solves” these problems with his handy-man ingenuity, but this is really only treating the symptoms as opposed to the disease.
The neighborhood is also filled with creepy old men, though Jeannette sometimes feels sorry for them for lacking friends, and with homeless people who wander into the unlocked house at night, since the doors and windows are left open for ventilation. Mom claims they’re harmless. One night, Jeannette awakens to feel someone rubbing his hand over her private parts. She screams and kicks at him. Brian runs into the room with a hatchet, and the man escapes. Mom is asleep and Dad not home, and though Brian and Jeannette follow for a few blocks, they never find him. They decide they’ve been Pervert Hunting, or “real” Demon Hunting.
Mom and Dad’s behavior begins to seem less and less non-conformist and more and more reckless. They are absolutely endangering their children, as Jeannette’s experience shows. The Walls siblings, unlike their parents, are nearly always close by and available when disaster strikes. Jeannette and Brian’s decision to call their chase “Pervert Hunting” or to change Dad’s “Demon Hunting” stories to “real” Demon hunting underlines how their childhood games have grown into actions with much higher stakes.
When Dad returns, he swears he’ll kill the intruder, but fails to find him. In any case, he and Mom refuse to close the doors and windows, which to them amounts to “capitulating”, or giving in, to fear.
While not uncaring about their children, Mom and Dad choose to show their care in odd or reckless ways—here, by elevating courage over fear without taking steps to prevent harm.
Refusing to capitulate is a common theme for Mom and Dad, who encourage the kids never to conform. Once, Mom accompanies them to the Phoenix library and encourages them to jump into a fountain in front. A group of people gathers, telling Mom that swimming in the fountain isn’t allowed, but she tells the kids to continue and even jumps in herself.
Mom and Dad’s desire not to give in to other people’s rules is closely related to their refusal to conform. Often, this can mean not just sticking to one’s own morals but also deliberately acting in a certain way merely because other people aren’t.
Mom considers herself to be Catholic and usually goes to Mass, although she thinks nuns are “killjoys,” and makes a point of going to church in torn-up clothes rather than the other dressed-up mothers.
This non-conformity is particularly evident with Mom’s church clothes. But she has an ambivalent rather than antagonistic relationship to the Church.
Dad, on the other hand, believes in “science and reason” rather than God. When he comes to church, as Mom orders him to on holy days, he sometimes shouts out challenges to the priest during his sermon until the family is asked to leave.
Though a free spirit in so many ways, Dad does often surrender to one person: his wife. Nevertheless, he can’t shut down the inquisitive, combative part of his personality even in Mass.
Dad soon grows restless in Phoenix, with its trappings of urban life like tax forms, meetings, and air-conditioned cars, which make him feel “itchy.” He believes humans were meant to live in the wild.
The same qualities that make Phoenix safe and pleasant for the kids to play in make it banal and colorless for Dad. He hates the “hoops” of mainstream life.
One day, he hears on the radio that a woman shot a mountain lion outside her house. Fuming, Dad drives the kids to the city zoo. They make their way to the cheetah’s cage and Dad ducks under the fence and kneels by the bars until he can pet the cheetah. The kids all follow him under the fence to pet him too. Once a large enough crowd gathers, Dad gestures at the kids to leave. A man in a uniform runs over and, looking livid, grabs Dad by the shoulder. Dad makes as if to fight, but when Mom asks him to listen to the guard, he leads the kids out the exit. Jeannette hears people whispering about the drunk and his dirty children, but is thrilled enough at having pet a cheetah that she doesn’t care.
For Dad, a city zoo is the ideal, emblematic examples of how humans and the wild are artificially separated. Showing the kids how harmless cheetahs are is part of his point—as well as being a stunt to draw attention, which he often can’t resist. At the same time, is it really not dangerous to pet the cheetahs? It’s hard to tell whether Dad really would have fought the guard—or if he puts on a great act. Jeannette, for her part, is enraptured by the extraordinary experience her father has given her, just like she was enthralled by his gift of stars.
Not long after, Dad gets fired from his electrician’s job, and then another and another, until he is left only with odd jobs. Jeannette usually can afford school lunch for a quarter, though when she can’t her teacher takes care of it for her. One day she and Brian hunt behind their house for bottles to cash in. They dive into a dumpster and find boxes of chocolates—they eat all of them. They return now and then and more often than not find more.
When Dad isn’t happy—in this case, with city life—he deals with it obliquely, simply letting things slowly unravel. Meanwhile, Jeanette is once again left scrounging for food, though the support she receives from teachers suggests the benefit of the “system” in the form of a social safety net. Note how Mom and Dad would never accept such “charity” from the teachers.
Maureen, the youngest, doesn’t have neighbors her age and spends much of her time alone. Mom decides she needs to be treated specially as a result, and since they don’t have enough money for nice preschool clothes, she tells the kids they’ll have to shoplift. They all enter the dressing room with several new dresses, and Mom reemerges with one tucked under a raincoat, while Brian, Lori, and Jeannette make noise to distract the shop employee.
Mom’s ethical code differs widely from the standards of right and wrong taught at school. She usually chooses the side of whoever the victim might be, even if that means breaking the law. That she cheerfully includes the kids in this theft again points to her non-conformity but also her recklessness.
Dad, for his part, raises funds by depositing money in a bank account and, a week later, withdrawing all the funds from a teller inside the bank while Mom simultaneously takes out the money through the drive-through. He tells Lori, who objects, that he is simply getting back at the rich bank owners who swindle regular folks with massive interest rates.
Dad’s non-conformist moral system is comparable to Mom’s in that he is for the “regular folks” against society’s leaders, and considers laws more as suggestions as long as no one’s hurt in the process. He describes his theft as if he is a kind of Robin Hood.
Dad claims that the electricians’ union in Phoenix is corrupt, run by the mob. This is why he hasn’t been able to hold down a job, so he must work undercover at the mobsters’ bars, which become his new regular haunts.
Hints, here, of how Dad will increasingly turn his savvy intelligence to supporting his drinking habit. He does seem to half-believe his own stories, but so do many addicts.
Mom doesn’t buy into Dad’s story, and after seeing him come home repeatedly drunk, angry, and breaking things, Jeannette begins to question his narrative too.
Jeannette, as she gets older, is beginning to lose her carefully guarded illusions about her father, which no longer seem to mesh with reality.
Sometimes, when he passes out, Jeannette picks his pocket, as Mom taught her to do. Once she tries the liquid in a small bottle, which she finds awful. Brian takes the bottle, empties it, and puts it into a box marked “Toy Box.” Every so often, he tells Jeannette, he’ll empty them in the garbage a few blocks away so that Dad doesn’t see the empty bottles.
The family, unable to confront Dad directly, resorts to dealing with his alcoholism obliquely. Jeannette and Brian find themselves becoming nearly as secretive in combating Dad’s drinking as Dad himself is about his drinking.
That Christmas, Mom decides to splurge and give the kids their best Christmas ever. She takes them shopping, giving them a dollar each for presents. On Christmas morning, she buys the family a Douglas fir, which the man sells her for only a dollar when he sees the kids’ run-down outfits.
Jeannette is becoming acutely aware of how she and her family come across to outsiders, though also of how that perception can be taken advantage of and used to benefit the family.
Dad has stocked up on liquor in advance and by the time they leave for midnight mass, he’s fully drunk. Mom says this is precisely the kind of situation when it’s important to say hello to God, so she drags him along. During the sermon, Dad yells a vulgar comment about Mary’s virginity, and the ushers lead the family out.
It’s difficult to know why Mom insists on bringing Dad to mass, even though she must have a good idea of what might happen—whether it’s her exuberant optimism, her desire for the family to be together, or a more sinister wish for him to fully and finally embarrass himself.
Back home, Mom gives Dad his present—a lighter—and he hurls it, lit, into the Christmas tree. Only after the tree is ruined, ornaments and presents destroyed, do they manage to put out the fire. No one yells at Dad—they’ve all found their own ways to cope on their own with his “crazy” ways, as Jeannette says.
A new low point has been reached in Jeannette’s attitude towards her father, when he ruins the Christmas they’d all been planning and waiting for.
When Jeannette turns ten that spring, Dad asks what she wants most in the world—surprising her, since the family usually doesn’t do much for birthdays. She hesitates, but he insists, and she eventually, with her eyes fixed on a distant spot, asks him to stop drinking.
Jeannette hesitates both because the family knows direct confrontation won’t work, and because she is sorry to say out loud how much of her adoration of him she’s lost.
Dad looks wounded, and says that Jeannette must be ashamed of him. She assures him she’s not, but he walks into the yard and asks if she’d mind leaving him alone.
Jeanette’s request makes Dad see himself through Jeanette’s eyes and makes him ashamed. His desire to be alone reflects how shaken he is.
The next day, he tells Jeannette that he’s going to stay in the bedroom alone for a few days. The day after, she peeks in to see him writhing on the bed, tied down with ropes. Mom says there’s nothing she can do: “Only he knows how to fight his own demons.”
Mom’s mention of demons recalls the imaginary Demon that Dad taught Brian and Jeannette to “hunt”—these demons are similarly invisible but, as Jeannette can see, very real.
After a week, Dad lets the kids see him, though he’s pale and thin with shaking hands, and he’s never hungry. Lori tells Jeannette that it won’t last, but Jeannette insists it will, since getting sober was a present to her.
By the fall, Dad decides to celebrate having recuperated from his alcoholism, and takes the family camping to the Grand Canyon. They pack up the car and, once just out of Phoenix, Dad asks Jeannette how fast she thinks the car can go. “Faster than the speed of light,” she replies, and Dad hits the gas. The speedometer pushes past a hundred, and the car begins to shudder, before smoke billows up around the hood. The car slows to a clattering crawl and then stops.
Jeannette and Dad playfully goad each other on as they used to in the old days, when they could joke and have adventures with abandon. Those days are definitively over, though—Dad’s carefree speeding leads not to thrills but to a breakdown.
Though Jeannette is confident he can fix the car, Dad says he doesn’t have the right tools. He tells the family that they’ll have to walk the eighty miles home. After a few hours, a blue Buick with a well-coiffed lady pulls up and offers them a ride. “You poor people,” she says, and keeps on repeating it: “you poor kids, poor things” until Jeannette says, “We’re not poor.” No one says much for the rest of the trip, and Dad disappears once she drops the family off.
Jeannette refuses to entirely stamp out her illusions, but Dad is forced to accede to reality. Already in a somber mood from the car debacle, Jeannette cannot stand to be boxed into a category like “poor,” even if that wasn’t precisely the woman’s intention. The family, though silent, probably agrees.
Three days later, Dad returns stumbling and yelling, and starts throwing silverware across the room screaming for Mom. She grabs a knife to protect herself and he wrestles her to the floor. Instantly, though, it turns from a fight to an embrace and they each laugh and hug each other. Jeannette is distraught that Dad has returned to drinking.
Ashamed from the broken down car and the pity of the woman in the Buick, Dad is ashamed. And shame leads him back to drinking, which is a betrayal of his promise to Jeanette and likely a source of further shame. Dad’s relationship with Mom, just like the family’s life together, walks a fine line between joyful and frightening, dangerous and loving.
Mom starts to mention moving to West Virginia where Dad’s parents, who could help him out, live. She makes it sound like an adventure, though Dad refuses to accept the idea. Mom, though, says she’s inherited some land in Texas from Grandma Smith, and has just received a check from the company leasing the drilling rights. With it she buys a used, rickety old car, ‘The Piggy Bank Special.”
In this case, Mom’s sense of “adventure” also has practical implications: she seems to sense the family has no future in Phoenix, that things are falling apart, and is using “adventure” to try to get Dad to give in to return to a place where the family might have more support.. Note the vagueness of Mom’s mention of inherited land in Texas—this land will remain a mysterious piece of the Wallses’ life.
Once she has a car, Mom tells the kids they’ll leave the next morning, with no time to officially withdraw or get school records. She says she won’t lease or sell Grandma Smith’s house, but will just leave laundry and dirty dishes around to prevent burglars from sneaking in.
Mom’s resistance to leasing or selling the house is in fact an unwillingness to give up a possession she considers hers and her disinterest in money. At the same time, it’s completely nuts, both in her plan to dissuade burglars with dirty dishes and because her refusal to get money from the house sentences her family to what will only become even more dire poverty in Welch.
Dad still is refusing to come as the rest of the family packs up the car. At the last minute, Jeannette cries out that they need him, and the other kids chime in, until he ambles up from his chair and into the car.
What with his unemployment, alcoholism, and inability to fix the old car on the way to the Grand Canyon, Dad no longer easily occupies the position of head of the family. Here, the children’s insistence that they need him lifts his spirits. In his own way, he does want to be there for his family. But he also wants to be needed.