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.