As Jeannette approaches the city, she wonders if all people will see is a tall, awkward, Appalachian hick. She hopes that they’ll see instead what Dad calls her “inner beauty.”
Though Jeannette has purposefully refused all of Dad’s oblique offers to stay, she still relies on his support to survive in a new, scary place.
At the bus station, Lori’s friend Evan meets her. He offers to carry her suitcase, but Jeannette soon takes it back. He comments that West Virginia girls are a tough breed.
Jeanette’s self-sufficiency immediately makes her stand out. The “lessons” her parents have taught her are immediately established as beneficial.
Jeannette meets Lori at the restaurant where she works, called Zum Zum. As she waitresses, Lori speaks in a thick German accent to improve her tips.
Just like as a child in the desert and in Welch, Lori finds a way to use her intelligence to maximize her success.
Jeannette wanders around while she’s waiting for Lori, and finds that New Yorkers, once they learn you’re not trying to get something from them, can be friendly and helpful with directions.
Compare these first interactions with Jeanette’s dismal impression of Welch. This feels like a place that could become a home. Note also Jeanette’s willingness to ask for directions, something Dad likely wouldn’t want to do.
Lori and Jeannette head to the Evangeline, a women’s hostel, that evening. Jeannette notices an orange glow in the sky from all the pollution—you can never see the stars. She wonders if that applies also to her planet, Venus.
Given Mom and Dad’s suspicion of big cities, this is the first time Jeannette finds herself under a starless sky—perhaps even without her beloved Venus to orient her.
It only takes a day for Jeannette to get a job at a hamburger joint, which pays over eighty dollars a week. She loves the excitement of it, as well as the twenty percent discount on lunches.
The job is pays twice as much as Jeannette’s gig selling jewelry, and the novel location makes it seem even more new and exciting.
That summer, Jeannette and Lori move into an apartment in the South Bronx, a bit shabby but far nicer and larger than Little Hobart Street—and with running water.
Jeannette continues to compare her current home to Welch, and materially, the new home wins on every front.
Jeannette enrolls in a school that offers internships rather than classes. She interns at The Phoenix, a newspaper in Brooklyn run by a man named Mike Armstrong, which has broken typewriters and old press releases instead of copy paper.
For Jeannette, The Phoenix is one step further along the path she’s set for herself beginning with The Maroon Wave, to become a journalist who knows what’s “really going on.”
That spring Mr. Armstrong is interviewing a job candidate when a mouse runs over her foot, terrifying the candidate. When the woman leaves Mr. Armstrong offers Jeannette the job, which she accepts.
Again note how her awful childhood experiences actually have hardened Jeanette and prepared her to succeed. After the Little Hobart Street rat, a mouse wouldn’t faze her at all.
Jeannette starts working ninety-hour weeks, relying on her ten-dollar watch to make sure she isn’t late. The check doesn’t always clear, but when it does she makes $125 a week.
The mention of the watch recalls Jeannette’s desire to be someone who needs to be places. And from $40 to $80 to $125 a week, she certainly is moving up in the world.
Brian writes to Jeannette telling her about the family: Dad’s drunk or in jail, Mom’s in her own world, and Maureen has essentially moved in with friends. Although Jeannette thinks of Brian as a country rather than city kid, she decides to convince him to join them in New York. She gives him a list of reasons, and he is quickly won over.
As Jeannette is fulfilling her own dreams step by step, the family seems either to have stagnated or regressed. The Walls children continue to stick together, and Brian too realizes that he needs to escape his parents to make a life.
After his junior year, Brian joins the sisters in the city and gets a job at an ice-cream parlor in Brooklyn.
Like Jeannette, Brian has skipped prom and Senior Day for a new adventure.
Jeannette has decided to stay at her job rather than go to college, which she doesn’t need in order to become someone “who knew what was really going on,” as she says—who can figure things out on her own. However, when Mr. Armstrong sees Jeannette looking something up in the encyclopedia—figuring it out on her own—he says that college will allow her to work even better jobs than this one. She can always come back to The Phoenix, he says, though he adds that he doubts she will.
This moment encapsulates the tension between the positives and negatives of self-sufficiency. Jeanette can figure things out on her own, and this gives her strength and independence. But it also can be much harder, and take longer, to figure out everything for yourself. Armstrong can see Jeanette’s potential, and he was the wisdom to help Jeanette see that pure self-sufficiency will never allow her to achieve it.
Jeannette applies to Barnard College, the sister school of Columbia. She is accepted. Grants and loans cover most of her tuition, and she gets a job answering phones at a firm on Wall Street for the rest. She lives in the Upper West Side apartment of a psychologist in exchange for babysitting the woman’s two sons.
It’s stunning how quickly Jeannette has moved from a shack in West Virginia to an Ivy League university, thanks both to her own pluck and to the help and support of others, even if not her parents.
As a student, Jeannette is hired as an editorial assistant at a famous magazine. Elated, she feels she’s finally “arrived.”
Though she may have materially arrived, Jeannette’s process of growing up doesn’t end here.
Sometimes Mom and Dad call from Welch, usually with new problems to report. When Lori hears that Maureen has fallen off the porch and gashed her head, she decides to bring Maureen to New York, though she’s only twelve. Mom likes the plan but Dad says Lori is stealing the kids.
The Walls children remake their home without their parents. Dad remains delusional, not seeing that he and Mom are the barriers to their children having an acceptable life. His kids all leaving him shames him, while Lori grows into being the parental figure of the family.
Lori, Jeanette, and Brian bring Maureen anyway. She lives with Lori, and they enroll her in a Manhattan public school. They all meet to eat at Lori’s apartment on the weekends and reminisce about the crazy times in Welch.
At once, the tumultuous years spent in Welch are no longer a daily battle but rather a comical memory, safer because it’s now firmly in the past.
Three years after Jeannette’s move, she is listening to the radio when she hears about a traffic jam on the New Jersey turnpike, in which a van had broken down and spilled clothes, furniture, and a dog all over the highway. That night she gets a phone call from Mom saying that she and Dad have moved to New York. Just as Jeannette thought, the van was theirs.
Though the last scene had located the siblings’ past life firmly in another time, this event makes clear to Jeannette that she can escape Welch but not her parents nor their crazy “adventures.”
When Jeannette hangs up, she looks around the small maid’s room where she lives in the psychologists apartment. She thinks about how it’s nevertheless hers and hers alone. There’s no room in her house or her life for her parents.
Here Jeannette suggests another way of thinking about home: as something that belongs to her, without being shared with others.
The next day, Mom and Dad meet all four of their children at Lori’s apartment. When Jeannette, who still feels a little hostile, asks why they’ve moved to New York, they say it’s so they can be a family again.
Though they had shown it in different ways, it was always clear that Mom and Dad were upset that their kids had left—not seeing, or perhaps refusing to admit, that the kids were leaving them.
Mom and Dad live for a while in a boardinghouse until they fall behind on the rent, at which point they move into a flophouse in a seedier neighborhood. Eventually they get kicked out of the flophouse, after Dad falls asleep with a cigarette and sets the room on fire.
Mom and Dad’s start in New York seems to repeat Jeannette’s childhood in fast-forward, with even an echo of Uncle Stanley’s setting their house on fire.
Lori then lets her parents stay with her for a time. After a few months the entire place is jammed with Mom’s paintings, street finds, and colored glasses. Meanwhile Dad is coming home more and more often drunk and angry.
Mom’s curious relationship to objects becomes more acute and her tendency to hoard more evident in the confined space of New York, and in the home Lori has created for herself.
Brian invites Dad into his apartment and locks the alcohol cabinet, but comes home one day to find that Dad has taken the door off its hinges with a screwdriver and drunk every bottle. Instead of yelling at Dad, Brian tells him he’ll just have to follow some rules. But Dad says he won’t submit to his own son, so he starts sleeping in the van.
Dad’s engineering acumen combined with his consistently creative tactics manages to outsmart Brian. The mention of rules, however, is enough to scare Dad away—the kids’ entire childhood has been defined by the absence of rules. Now they embrace them.
After giving Mom multiple deadlines for cleaning up, Lori finally kicks her out and she moves into the van as well. After a few months, Mom and Dad leave it in a no-parking zone and it’s towed. They can’t retrieve the car because it’s unregistered, so it is effectively lost. They sleep on a park bench that night: they’ve become homeless.
From a flophouse to the street, Mom and Dad seem to have descended rapidly into homelessness. Even though none of their choices are new or unexpected, urban poverty seems to be a different animal.
A few times a month, the entire family still all meet up at Lori’s apartment, where Mom tells the kids that they’ve mastered the schedules for the soup kitchens and the locations of public library bathrooms. They’ve also spent time attending free plays, concerts, and museums. It’s an adventure, she says.
Towards the winter, the Mom and Dad spend more and more time in the libraries, where Mom is reading Balzac and Dad is researching chaos theory.
Another example of Mom and Dad’s broad definition of education, challenging themselves even while refusing to conform.
Jeannette is torn, wanting both to help Mom and Dad and to abandon them. She often finds herself giving homeless people spare change, wondering if it’s just to ease her guilt for not helping her parents.
The conflicting messages of responsibility that Mom and Dad have given to Jeannette come to a head with this internal conflict.
Once, when Jeannette gives some change to a homeless man on Broadway, her friend Carol tells her not to, saying that they’re all “scam artists.” Jeannette can’t object, she feels, without revealing who she really is.
Though she’s technically now an adult, Jeannette has still not figured out who she really is, or at least how to reconcile the different ways she defines herself.
In a political science class at Barnard, Professor Fuchs—one of Jeannette’s favorite professors—asked if conservatives or liberals were right about the cause of homelessness. Jeannette responds that it’s neither a result of misguided social programs nor of cuts in those same programs, but that sometimes people refuse to make the compromises and choices that would allow them to make ends meet. Professor Fuchs is furious, asking her what she knows about the struggles of the poor. Jeanette doesn’t respond.
This devastating episode for Jeannette could have been more easily resolved had she dared to explain how her own family history led to her thoughts on the matter. Still unsure who she is and where she belongs, however, Jeannette proves unable to do so. She remains ashamed of her past, unwilling to accept it as part of her.
Mom and Dad hate shelters, so on winter nights they either sleep in church pews or, when the pews are full, show up at Lori’s, where Mom sometimes breaks down and cries, saying that things can be hard as a homeless person. .
We’ve seen Mom’s cheery attitude descend into bitterness and despair before, but now things are different: they lack a true, stable home (however transient), and Lori and her siblings are no longer tied to their parents’ fate.
Though Jeannette considers dropping out of Barnard since she feels so hypocritical, like she’s pretending to be something she’s not. Lori, though, advises her to stay, since dropping out would be counterproductive and would devastate Dad.
Jeannette’s inability to reconcile her past and present leads her to consider taking radical measures. Yet it is the idea of not pleasing Dad that helps to keep her going.
Jeannette meets Mom at a café to try to discuss some options that could ease her mother’s situation—moving back to Welch or Phoenix, selling the land in Texas or her expensive Indian jewelry. But Mom refuses all of them, saying things will work out.
As usual, Jeannette seeks practical, concrete, and orderly solutions to problems, whereas Mom tends to assume these problems don’t exist.
That spring Dad comes down with tuberculosis and is hospitalized. When Jeannette comes to visit him he introduces her to all his new friends (i.e. other patients) and shows her the chaos theory books she’s been reading, some of which are making him think that there might be a divine creator after all.
Jeannette mentions the fact of Dad’s hospitalization nonchalantly, as small crises have become routine for Mom and Dad. Dad’s shifting thoughts regarding God imply that people can change, and certain ideas are not necessarily permanent.
After six weeks in the hospital, Dad doesn’t want to go back to the streets since he knows he’ll start drinking again. Instead, he gets a job doing maintenance at a resort upstate. Mom refuses to join him in the “sticks.”
This is the longest he’s been sober since he tried to give up drinking for Jeannette, and Dad finally shows some self-awareness about his addiction and the consequences of his drinking.
Dad seems to be doing well, and enjoys living near the country, but Mom keeps calling him and telling him how much easier homeless life is in a pair, and how much the dog misses him. Eventually, she convinces him to move back, and he immediately starts drinking again.
Mom’s constant cajoling may stem from her conviction that Dad needs to be responsible for her and her needs, but she seems unable to see that her needs may not match his needs; that placing her needs first could be dangerous for him. And they are. It is never more apparent than here that at this point Mom and Dad enable each other, that they help to accentuate each other’s most problematic qualities.
By this time, Lori is an illustrator at a comic-book company, Maureen is in high school, and Brian is working to become a policeman. The entire family celebrates Christmas that year at Lori’s apartment. Mom and Dad give the kids battered street finds, while Jeannette gives Dad warm winter clothes. He says they must be ashamed of him and stomps out, leaving Mom to happily accept her presents.
Jeannette catches the reader up on the siblings’ now separate lives, no longer centered around the family’s “adventures.” Mom and Dad’s differing reactions to receiving nice Christmas presents underline their different attitudes towards being “self-sufficient” but unable to provide for anyone else.
That August, Dad, who has been following along her class syllabi by checking the books out from the library, calls Jeannette to discuss her courses. She says she’s thinking of dropping out, since she’s a thousand dollars short on tuition. A week later, he arrives at Lori’s carrying a garbage bag with 950 dollars he’s won at poker. Jeannette hesitates but he insists until she accepts it.
From chaos theory to general mechanics, Dad is capable of and interested in intellectual discovery, which recalls for Jeannette the pedestal on which she’d placed him as a child. Dad, in his own non-standard way, still wants to provide for his daughter. Unlike her father, Jeanette is not too devoted to self-sufficiency to refuse.
That fall, Mom and Dad find an abandoned building to move into on the Lower East Side. They’ll be squatters—or as Mom calls it, modern-day pioneers.
Mom has used the language of pioneers before—here it sounds more enthralling and less dismal than urban squatters. Once again her optimism seems ridiculous, and yet she seems to believe it.
Jeannette goes to visit them and finds boarded-up windows, one light bulb strung from the ceiling, and a hinge-less door. But their apartment fits all Mom’s scattered possessions, and Dad has hot-wired the building to a utility cable down the block.
Jeannette’s first impression reveals how she judges the space of a home herself, but her subsequent reflection acknowledges Dad’s handiness and the apartment’s aptness for them both.
Jeannette is reminded of their home in Welch and just wants to run away, but she also realizes how proud Mom and Dad are of their new home. They tell her about their fellow squatters fighting against the housing agency. It occurs to Jeannette that they’ve found a community of others who have spent their lives fighting against authority—their own kind of home.
Jeannette continues to toggle between her visceral reaction of disgust and her emotional attempt to understand Mom and Dad’s embrace of this apartment, and their definition of home—which may, Jeannette is learning, be far different from hers.
Mom and Jeannette’s siblings can’t make it to her graduation that spring. Jeannette wants Dad to attend, but tells him she can’t risk him showing up drunk and combative.
Jeanette remains ashamed of and unwilling to reveal her past or her parents to the people in her new life.
Jeannette is offered a job at the magazine where she’s been working part-time. Her boyfriend Eric, who lives in his family’s apartment on Park Avenue, offers to let her move in with him. Eric owns a small company; he is painstaking and organized, responsible, and calm. When Dad asks about him, she tells him that Eric treats her fine. She thinks to herself that while she feared she’d end up with someone like Dad, she’s with the exact opposite.
Jeannette’s description of Eric already depicts him as exactly the opposite of Dad—organized rather than scattered, responsible rather than negligent, and calm rather than edgy and impulsive. Just as Dad ran away from Welch to find an alternative in Mom, Jeannette seeks to find the opposite of Dad in Eric.
Dad refuses to come visit Jeannette, saying he’d feel out of place, but Mom does come at once and is fascinated by the china and Persian rugs. She says she prefers the view from the Upper West Side, and Jeannette tells her jokingly that she’s a pretty snobby squatter.
Similar to the Christmas presents anecdote—Mom doesn’t think twice about admiring material possessions, whereas Dad sees in them what he could not provide.
Jeannette then tells her mother that she wants to help her and Dad, either with a car or rent or a down payment on a place they could own. Mom responds that Jeannette’s the one who she’s worried about, and asks if Jeannette’s lost the values that she’s tried to give her.
For Jeannette, “help” must be material and concrete. Mom turns the offer on its head by challenging Jeannette’s very materialism.
Meanwhile, Jeannette’s editor assigns her a weekly gossip column, which also concerns Mom, who would rather Jeannette be doing muckraking investigative journalism. But Jeannette is thrilled, thinking that the job will let her be someone “who knew what was really going on.”
Jeannette has consistently pursued a career path from her days in high school, even trying to fit a new job offer into her goal of knowing what’s going on.
Jeannette adores her new job and the perks that accompany it: the art-gallery openings, movie premieres, and private dinners, as well as all the famous and interesting people she meets.
Suddenly, Jeannette has access to a part of New York cultural life that her parents, despite their free events, could not dream of. Her initial adoration of this world seems idealized but also understandable.
Jeannette is convinced that she couldn’t keep her job if people knew about her family, so she keeps her past hidden, leading to one awkward moment when she gives a vague answer when a dinner companion asks her about her family, so that the companion ends up asking if her family owns coal mines in West Virginia.
In this new, vast, exciting world to which Jeannette has only had a brief introduction, family roots like hers are simply inconceivable. And she remains unwilling to threaten her new situation by revealing her past.
Jeannette marries Eric four years after moving in. Not long after, Mom’s uncle Jim dies, and Mom tells Jeannette they need to buy Jim’s half of the Texas land to keep it in the family, for sentimental reasons. She tells Jeannette she’ll have to borrow a million dollars from Eric.
Mom’s desire to buy the land for “sentimental reasons” is consistent with her attitude towards material wealth in general, valuable to her as an object of appreciation rather than deriving any advantage from it.
Jeannette slowly realizes that this means that Mom’s half of the land is also worth a million dollars. When Jeanette raises this point with her mother, Mom says she’s not sure—she never had it appraised, since it was never her intention to sell it. Jeannette wonders if her entire life, as well as her parents’ current situation, is a farce. But she understands on some level that Mom’s possession of the land is simply a matter of faith, impossible to rationally object to.
Here it becomes clear that Jeanette’s entire awful experience in Welch—the abject poverty, hunger, rats, all of it—could have been turned on its head if Mom had just sold that land. The family could have been comfortable,. Her initial reaction to this is shock and horror: how could her mother have not sold that land to help her family? But she has also grown up enough to struggle to understand the difference between her own worldview and her mother’s. And even as the reader was horrified by Jeanette’s life in Welch, now faced with the prospect that Jeanette could have avoided such a life, the reader must ask whether the things Jeanette learned from that life weren’t valuable lessons after all.
Jeannette tells Mom that she can’t ask Eric for a million dollars. Mom tells her how disappointed in her she is.
This exchange again highlights Jeanette and her mother’s different values: to Jeanette a million dollars is valuable; to Mom it’s just paper that gets you things worth sentimental value.
Though Lori and Brian have stable jobs, Maureen never manages to finish college and wanders from job to job and from boyfriend to boyfriend—looking for someone to take care of her, Jeannette says, just as her friends’ families in Welch.
Lori, Brian, and Jeannette often needed to band together as children to create a stable life for themselves; Maureen, who being younger was never entirely part of their group, has sought order and home outside the family.
One day Maureen comes to see Jeannette, with dark makeup and bleached hair, and mentions Mormon kidnapping cults that need to be uncovered in Utah. Jeannette, alarmed, tells Mom that Maureen needs to see someone, but Mom counters that Maureen just needs “fresh air and sunshine.” Maureen ends up living with Mom and Dad in the abandoned tenement.
When Jeannette was growing up, Mom and Dad’s conspiracy theories seemed questionable but ultimately harmless, whereas Maureen’s now seems to warrant more serious attention than Mom’s non-standard and optimistic medical advice.
Six months later, Mom tells Maureen she’ll need to find a place of her own instead of living in the tenement with them, and Maureen stabs her. She’s arrested. When they all meet at the jail, bail is denied.
The stabbing puts an end to any ambiguity on whether Maureen is struggling in the same way as Mom and Dad, or if she has more serious mental issues.
The family gets into a massive fight about who is responsible for Maureen’s situation: Lori blames Dad for a toxic childhood environment, whereas Mom blames junk food and Dad says that Maureen was just made that way.
How do we account for people’s actions, especially violent ones? The Walls family’s various explanations arise from different ways to understand responsibility.
Maureen is sent to a hospital for a year. After she’s released, she buys a one-way train ticket to California. Jeannette hopes California will become Maureen’s true home, with its warmth, grapes free for picking, and the opportunity to sleep under the stars.
Though Maureen didn’t want anyone to actually see her off at the train station, Jeannette wakes up early the morning of Maureen’s departure to imagine her leaving. Jeanette regretfully things about how she never had, or made, time to really care for Maureen in New York.
As Jeannette grew up she was increasingly frustrated with her parents for their inability to take care of and responsibility for her. But did she fail to do the same for her sister?
Jeannette hardly sees Mom and Dad for a year or so, until she gets a phone call from Dad inviting her to the tenement. When she arrives, she sees that he has a beard for the first time. When she asks about it, he says it’s now or never—he’s dying.
Jeannette’s realization about Maureen has only deepened the borders between her life and her parents’. Their physical changes, like Dad’s beard, mark this passing of time.
Dad tells Jeannette that he got into a fight with Nigerian drug dealers, which has given him a rare and un-curable disease. She knows that the illness is actually the product of all his cigarettes and alcohol, but lets him go on.
Recall Dad’s improbable if not fantastic stories about demons and piloting. Through stories Dad imposes another, more appealing narrative on his life. It is completely clear now that Dad’s stories were a way not just of entertaining his children but of hiding the truth from himself, of ducking the responsibility and therefore shame of what he had put his family through.
Jeannette knows how much chaos Dad has created for her, but also cannot imagine life without him, and acknowledges his unique love for her. She apologizes for not asking him to her graduation, but he shrugs it off and says that he’s proud of her.
It takes Dad’s approaching death for Jeannette to realize how disorder and turbulence have not been uniformly negative in her life; at least, she wouldn’t be who she is without them.
Two weeks later, Dad has a heart attack. Before they let him off life support, Jeannette visits the hospital and has a strong desire to pick him up and run down the hospital halls one more time.
Flashback to one of the early scenes, when Dad gathers Jeannette into his arms and they “escape” from the hospital together, towards another adventure. Despite everything, Jeanette still loves him and wants to give him that feeling of safety and excitement that he gave to her, to bring him to that border between order and turbulence.
In the weeks following Dad’s death, Jeannette finds herself restless and uncomfortable, always wanting to be somewhere else or, especially, on the move. She picks up skating, but soon realizes that she needs to reconsider more major things.
Her inability to stay in any one place suggests that Jeannette does not see herself as belonging in any of them—a problem that surface-level solutions like skating won’t resolve.
Jeannette leaves Eric a year later, realizing that he’s not the man for her, and that Park Avenue is not where she belongs.
This decision seems to be tied to Jeannette’s desire to seek a true home, a realization she’s had with Dad’s death. In Eric, she had run to the opposite of what her parents were, and had run to a ready-made home of wealth and comfort. But she hadn’t found, hadn’t built, a home that fit her.