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.