Summary: Part II (San Francisco to Blythe), continued

After the fire in San Francisco, the Walls family spends a couple nights sleeping in their car at the beach, and then drives toward the Mojave Desert. On the way, Mom makes them stop the car because a Joshua tree catches her eye. It is a gnarled tree, grown sideways because of the environment’s harsh winds. Mom thinks it’s so beautiful that she has to paint it immediately. Jeannette tells Mom that she wants to get a Joshua tree sapling and protect it so that it will grow upright. Mom admonishes her that to do so would ruin the tree’s beauty. Dad drives a little up the road from the tree and finds a place for them to live there in Midland.

At night the sounds of coyotes keep Jeannette awake. One night, she thinks she hears something slithering under her bed. When she runs out to tell her father, he tells Jeannette that it’s the same Demon that has been chasing him for years, and they run outside to chase the Demon with his hunting knife. Dad says all Jeannette has to do is show him she’s not afraid.

Dad gets a job in a gypsum mine and comes home covered in white dust. At home, he plays “ghost” with the kids and gives Mom sacks of gypsum for her sculptures. Mom gets pregnant and spends her days working on her art. She writes stories and plays, and Lori helps her proofread them.

Dad loses his job at the gypsum mine, and when Christmas comes, they have no money. For their Christmas presents, Dad takes each kid outside individually and lets them pick out their favorite star in the sky. That night, Dad teaches the kids all about lightyears, blackholes, and the special qualities of each of their stars.

On the way to Blythe, Mom and Dad get into an argument because Mom says she has been pregnant for ten months. When Dad swears at and ridicules her, Mom bolts out of the car, and Dad chases her through the desert brush in the car with the kids in the backseat. He eventually corners her against a boulder with his car and drags Mom back inside, sobbing.

Mom and Dad make up the next day and move into a cinderblock apartment building in Blythe. Most of the families are Spanish-speaking migrant farm workers. The kids enroll in school, and one day a group of Mexican girls jump Jeannette for being a skinny teacher’s pet. The next day, Brian beats the girls off with a yucca branch, and Jeannette cracks a girl’s head with a big rock.

Mom gives birth to a girl, Maureen. A few months later, Dad announces they’re moving to Battle Mountain to find gold. They rent a giant U-Haul truck for the journey, and all four children ride in the back with the furniture. The back is cold and dark, and Maureen cries the whole way. Several hours into the journey, the back doors fly open, and the children have to hold onto the Prospector so they don’t get sucked out. Eventually, a car pulls up beside the trailer and the driver flags down Mom and Dad. Dad yells at the kids for not being more careful, re-locks the back, and continues driving.

Analysis: Part II (San Francisco to Blythe), continued

Mom and Jeannette’s diverging opinions about the Joshua tree reveal a difference in their respective life philosophies. Joshua trees, like the one Mom stops to paint, grow gnarled and almost entirely sideways due to the desert’s harsh winds. When Jeannette wants to dig up a sapling and replant it in a less extreme environment, one in which it could grow “nice and tall and straight,” her impulse suggests that she might also prefer a less hazardous upbringing. This isn’t the first time Jeannette has shown a proclivity for neatness and order. Whereas Mom hates Grandma Smith’s strict rules, Jeannette appreciates the structure. And whereas Dad distrusts hospitals, Jeannette likes how clean and orderly they are. Mom’s belief that the Joshua tree’s struggle creates its beauty reflects her commitment to a life of upheaval. It also indicates that Mom will never offer Jeannette the kind of protection she might like to have because Mom admires strength gained through adversity.

Dad’s stories and antics throughout Part II portray him as both a creative eccentric and a manipulative abuser. His gift of stars to the children at Christmas epitomizes this tension. On the one hand, Dad offers each child a bonding moment with him where he shares his knowledge of space and makes them feel special, a beautiful way of salvaging a Christmas without money for material gifts. However, he cannot truly give his children the stars. In addition, he encourages his children to look down on those who get material gifts, trying to disguise the reality of the family’s poverty and his shortcomings by pretending superiority. While the star gifts actually do end up being a lovely memory, the episode demonstrates Dad’s habit of pretending his difficulties and shortcomings are actually intentional or even signs of genius. This pattern echoes the way he portrays his bullying Mom into marriage as a romantic gesture and tries to distract Jeannette from her trauma of falling out of the car with a joke about her nose. In both those instances, as with the star gifts, Dad covers up frightening realities with his charm.

The two car rides in this section further characterize Mom and Dad as extremely selfish and reckless. When Mom bolts out of the car while it’s still moving, she demonstrates disregard for her own safety and her children’s safety over a petty argument about gestation times. Her willingness to leave the other children with Dad in his angry state also suggests she prioritizes her own anger and whims over her children. Dad’s decision to pursue her with the car not only demonstrates drunken, abusive recklessness, but a dangerous desire to maintain control of his wife at all costs. In this event, Dad and Mom both demonstrate that they care more about perpetuating their dynamic and continuing their arguments than protecting and considering the safety and feelings of their children. When Mom and Dad put all four children, including a newborn infant, in the back of a U-Haul with no seatbelts, food, or water for several hours, they reach a new level child endangerment. Their commitment to such a dangerous plan demonstrates more concern for their own comfort and thrift than their children. This scene thus casts a foreboding shadow over what is to come in Battle Mountain.