If there’s any truth to the new age saying that we choose our own parents, Jeannette Walls must love a challenge. The second daughter of Rex, an alcoholic would-be inventor and Rose Mary, a free spirited artist/occasional schoolteacher, Walls and her siblings pretty much had to fend for themselves from a shockingly early age. Her first childhood memory at age three, near the beginning of the book, is of standing on a stool, cooking her own hot dog, and catching her skirt on fire while trying to offer Juju the family dog a bite.
The nurses and doctors kept asking me questions: How did you get burned? Have your parents ever hurt you? Why do you have all those bruises and cuts? My parents never hurt me, I said. I got the cuts and bruises playing outside and the burns from cooking hot dogs. They asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three. It was easy, I said. You just put the hot dogs in the water and boil them. It wasn’t like there was some complicated recipe that you had to be old enough to follow…I’d turn on the stove, and when the water was boiling, I’d drop in the hot dogs. “Mom says I’m mature for my age,” I told them, “and she lets me cook for myself a lot.”
Two nurses looked at each other, and one of them wrote something down on a clipboard. I asked what was wrong. Nothing, they said, nothing.
The family wanders the deserts of Arizona and California, often “doing the skedaddle” when the rent comes due. During one of these hasty exits, Rex stops the car, grabs the family cat, and tosses it out the window into the desert night. When Jeannette bursts into tears, Rose Mary scolds her:
“Don’t be so sentimental,” Mom said. She told me we could always get another cat, and now Quixote was going to be a wild cat, which was much more fun than being a house cat. Brian, afraid that Dad might toss Juju out the window as well, held the dog tight.
Rose Mary owns a house in Phoenix, and a tract of land in Texas, but insists that it would be foolhardy to sell either — yet they end up staying in the basement of Rex’s parents’ house in West Virginia. There’s almost never enough food in the house for the kids, and Jeannette is often reduced to rummaging through the trash in the school restroom to find something to eat. If Dickens wrote about neglected children in the United States, it might sound a lot like this story.
Despite having to raise themselves, and earn money to escape home and launch themselves into adulthood, Jeannette and her siblings seem to have survived despite their parents, and have even forgiven them, to varying degrees. That Walls makes this believable is a miracle.
author photo: John Taylor