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The family drives west in their Oldsmobile, which breaks down regularly and can’t go over twenty-five miles per hour. They often take back roads to avoid tolls and sightsee. It takes them two months to get to Welch, West Virginia, deep in the Appalachian Mountains.
The family pulls up to an old house and meets Dad’s mother, Erma, as well as Grandpa and Uncle Stanley. Uncle Stanley hugs and kisses Jeannette more than she would like. She thinks her relatives are strange and look nothing like Dad. The family sleeps in the basement, a dank, cinderblock room with a coal stove and one bed for the kids to share.
When Mom takes the kids to enroll in school, she doesn’t have their records but assures the principal that they are gifted. The principal makes the kids answer rapid-fire questions, but the children can’t understand his Appalachian accent, and the principal can’t understand them. The principal places them in remedial classes for students with learning disabilities.
In school, the kids struggle to assimilate. Jeannette cannot answer questions in history class like she used to because the class focuses only on West Virginia. On the playground, a black girl named Dinitia Hewitt smiles at Jeannette, which Jeannette interprets as a friendly gesture, until she realizes the smile is malicious. In English class, the teacher teases Jeannette for the incident in the principal’s office, insinuating that she thinks she’s superior to others. While the class laughs at Jeannette, Dinitia stabs her in the back with a pencil. For weeks, Dinitia and her friends beat up Jeannette at recess and make fun of her ragged clothing.
One day while walking in town, Jeannette comes across a small dog tormenting a little boy, and she helps him get home on piggy back. The boy happens to be Dinitia’s neighbor, and Dinitia stops tormenting Jeannette. Soon, the girls start doing homework together, but Erma derides Jeannette for having a black friend. She blames the black people for Welch’s decline. Eventually, Jeannette snaps and tells Erma not to use racial slurs. Erma calls her ungrateful and sends her to the basement without dinner. Mom tells Jeannette she has to be polite and show Erma compassion. Jeannette knows that they would be homeless without Erma, and now understands that desperation breeds hypocrisy.
Mom and Dad go to Phoenix to retrieve the rest of their things. While they’re away, Erma drinks often, hits the children with serving spoons, and tells them about her hard life as an orphan. One afternoon, Jeannette hears Brian crying and walks in on Erma molesting him. Jeannette and Lori confront Erma, which leads to a physical fight. Erma banishes them to the basement, not allowing them to eat or use the restroom. Uncle Stanley occasionally brings dinner, fearing Erma’s wrath.
When Mom and Dad come back, Dad yells at the kids for disrespecting Erma and at Brian for being weak. Jeannette realizes that Erma must have done the same thing to Dad as a child. Erma banishes the whole family from her house, so the Wallses must find another place to live.
Life in Erma’s house causes the Walls children to begin to rely on each other instead of their parents for safety. First, Jeannette realizes that her parents will bend their strong values for survival when Mom tells Jeannette not to challenge Erma’s racism. Although both Mom and Dad had previously been outspoken about their beliefs, because they now rely on Erma for shelter, they ignore their convictions in favor of practicality. However, Lori hugs Jeannette for speaking out against Erma’s racist rants, demonstrating that Lori will support Jeannette’s beliefs even when Mom won’t. When Mom and Dad take the trip to Phoenix, Brian questions whether they’ll return, demonstrating a further lack of faith in their parents. The children’s dedication to each other comes to a head when Erma molests Brian. Not only do Lori and Jeannette intervene, but they refuse to back down when Dad admonishes them for it. Mom and Dad make no effort to protect their children from Erma’s abuse and hatred, signaling again that Jeannette and her siblings will have to be their own parents.
Erma’s attack on Brian provides context for some of Dad’s behavior, allowing Jeannette and the reader to understand him better. First, Erma’s alcoholism indicates that the family has a genetic predisposition to addiction, or at least that Dad grew up with a constant example of alcoholism. Second, Erma’s bitter anger and resentment suggests that Dad grew up without praise, perhaps explaining why he now surrounds himself with people willing to see him as a hero. Dad places blame for the attack onto Brian’s weakness, which suggests he blames himself for the abuse he suffered. His focus on weakness provides context for his bizarre focus and aggressive approach to courage. He has internalized the narrative that fighting back could have saved him. The children’s realization that Erma likely molested Dad allows them to feel compassion for him, but unlike their parents, they protect each other from abuse. Even after Dad scolds Jeannette and Lori for defending Brian, they refuse to apologize or ignore what happened. Unlike Dad, who adopted some of Erma’s abusive behaviors, the Walls children refuse to accept this treatment, suggesting that they may break this cycle of generational abuse.
Life in Welch challenges the Walls’ perception of themselves as exceptional. Used to the narrative of her children’s brilliance, Mom assumes she can once again ignore the rules and demand that the school in Welch place her children in accelerated courses. The public humiliation Jeannette’s teacher puts her through as a result demonstrates that Welch punishes people who believe they’re special. Dinitia's gang specifically targets Jeannette for putting on airs. When the bullies emphasize that Jeannette’s coat has no buttons, they drive home both the reality of Jeannette’s poverty and that the people of Welch consider material possessions integral to superiority. Furthermore, the school doesn’t see Jeannette’s intelligence because they only acknowledge and value things that are concretely practical to life in Welch. The principal doesn’t even consider that a difference in accent, not intelligence, might explain her difficulty in communicating with the Walls children, demonstrating that she doesn’t think about life beyond Welch. Jeannette no longer excels in her history class because the curriculum focuses only on West Virginia instead of the country as a whole. Whereas her whole life Jeannette has been taught to value unconventional thinking and imagination, Welch only has room for the concrete and practical.
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