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Jeannette Walls begins her memoir with a scene from adulthood. While in a taxi in New York City on a cold evening in March, she wonders if she has overdressed for the party she will be attending. When she looks out the window, she sees her mother, dressed in rags and picking through a dumpster. Jeannette slides down in her seat to avoid being recognized, and asks the driver to take her home.
Inside her upscale apartment, Jeannette is overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing for living so comfortably while her parents are homeless. She calls Mom, and they meet for lunch at a Chinese restaurant to discuss if there’s anything Jeannette can do to help. Mom refuses her offer, maintaining that she and Dad are living the way they want to. Mom urges Jeannette to accept her family as they are and to be honest about who she is.
In Part II, Jeannette goes back to her very first memory, which takes place when Jeannette is three years old and living in a trailer park in southern Arizona. While she boils hot dogs over the stove, the tutu she is wearing catches fire, engulfing in flames. Her mother smothers the flame with a blanket, and the neighbor rushes them to the hospital. At the hospital, the doctors say Jeannette is lucky to be alive and perform a skin graft, replacing the skin on Jeannette’s badly burned sides with skin from her thighs.
Mom, Dad, her older sister Lori, and her younger brother Brian visit when they can, and they usually cause a scene. They talk and argue in loud voices, and on one occasion Dad physically threatens one of the doctors because he doesn’t think they should use so many bandages on Jeannette’s burns. At the end of her six-week hospital stay, Dad rushes her out of the hospital without paying, a scheme he calls “checking out Rex Walls-style.” At home, Jeannette goes right back to cooking hot dogs without supervision and develops a fascination with fire, playing with matches and setting and putting out small fires in the yard. A couple months later, Dad wakes up the whole family in the middle of the night and tells them they have to leave town. They sleep outside that night, without pillows, which Dad says will give them good posture like the Indians.
The Wallses often leave town in the middle of the night, which Dad calls “doing the skedaddle.” Dad struggles to keep a job for very long, so they move every couple of months, usually to stay ahead of the bill collectors. Sometimes, the family goes to Phoenix to stay with Jeannette’s maternal grandmother, but Dad and Grandma Smith argue often, so they never stay long. They spend most of their time in various desert mining towns. In the desert, Mom and Dad teach the kids reading and mathematics as well as specialized survival skills, such as how to forage for food and shoot pistols. They don’t wear shoes or use toothbrushes, and the family eats irregularly. Once, when a vineyard owner in California allows people to come and pick their own grapes for five cents a pound, the family eats nothing but green grapes for weeks.
The striking wealth disparity in the memoir’s opening scene grabs the reader’s attention by introducing the confusing relationship between Jeannette and her mother. Though dramatic in its juxtaposition, an encounter between a wealthy New Yorker in a cab and a homeless woman is nevertheless a familiar image because in major metropolitan cities extreme prosperity and poverty often exist in close proximity. However, Jeannette turns this image on its head when she casually refers to the dispossessed woman as “Mom,” and then later walks into her own luxurious apartment building only a few blocks away. Because of their relationship the extreme differences in their respective lives appear not only unjust but also cruel. Furthermore, Jeannette’s memories of her mother painting in the desert, reading Shakespeare, and refusing financial assistance undermine a long list of stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness. By the time these two women bicker about cosmetic hair removal treatments in a Chinese restaurant, we may find their relationship puzzling and confusing. The strange nature of their encounter, then, causes the reader to wonder how this could happen, encouraging us to continue reading in order to discover the answer.
The opening of Part I sets the tone for the memoir in both content and style. This fire marks the first of many accidental fires in Jeannette’s childhood, emphasizing the constant danger that permeates her life. The incident both raises concerns about the lack of parental supervision Jeannette has and also causes us to marvel at her independence in cooking hot dogs at three, a pattern of fear and admiration that will become familiar by the end of the memoir. The first statement—“I was on fire”—establishes the innocent and detached tone of Jeannette’s narration. Rather than project her adult thoughts and feelings onto events, Jeannette recounts her memories as objectively as possible. The blunt style mimics the way young children take their surroundings for granted because they lack the frame of reference to understand what is normal. In addition, the lack of commentary creates an underlying mood of dread. Without Jeannette’s adult voice, we have no choice but to watch the events of her childhood with no intervention or analysis from a voice of reason. We begin to wonder if someone will intervene, and when Jeannette will realize that she is in danger.
Jeannette’s first memories also introduce each character’s idiosyncrasies and subtle differences, laying the groundwork for the interpersonal conflict to come. Dad’s tendency to recast hardships as benefits, as when he tells the kids that sleeping outside without pillows will help them have good posture, suggests an inability to acknowledge flaws and mistakes. Jeannette’s desire to continue their nomadic lifestyle forever demonstrates that she believes Dad’s explanations and introduces her hero worship of her father. When Lori responds that she thinks they may truly live in a nomadic way forever, the reader can pick up on an underlying current of pessimism, hinting at a rift between Dad and Lori. Mom works to smooth over tensions by excusing Dad’s unceremonious abandonment of the family cat and distracting the children with songs, showing a tendency to minimize and distract from Dad’s harm. Brian’s silence and fear for the family dog hints that although he is younger than Jeannette, Brian already has lost some faith in Dad. By the end of this section, we have a complex portrait of a family who lives very precariously and whose members appear to be operating on conflicting levels of awareness of that fact.
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