Summary and Analysis
The Desert Sections 1-3
As a precocious three-year-old, Jeannette often cooked herself hot dogs on the stovetop. One day while doing so, the gas flame catches on her dress and fire zips up her torso. Terrified, she calls for help and Mom dashes to her, wraps her in a blanket, and a neighbor drives them to the hospital. At the hospital, the nurses place her on a bed of ice; Jeannette's younger brother, Brian, steals a chunk of ice and eats it.
Jeannette spends several days in the quiet hospital where she experiences sleeping in a clean bed and receiving three meals a day. The staff is concerned about her home environment, even though Jeannette is happy with her parents' laissez-faire parenting style. When her parents and her siblings, Brian and older sister Lori, come to visit, the family is loud, singing songs, and telling stories. During one visit, Dad tells the story of Lori's getting stung by a scorpion and how he and Mom took Lori to a Native American healer because Dad does not trust hospitals. He tells Jeannette that her Mom should have done the same when Jeannette got burned.
One day, Dad shows up alone and tells Jeannette they're sneaking out. He lifts her out of bed and carries her out of the hospital in spite of the nurses' protests. Home for a few days, Jeannette is back to making hot dogs on her own and becomes fascinated with fire, going so far as to melt part of her favorite doll's face while playing with matches.
A few months later, Dad comes home in the middle of the night and informs his family that it is time to hit the road. They pack up their necessities and drive slowly and quietly out of the trailer park. When Jeannette asks Dad where they are going, he replies, "Wherever we end up." That night they camp under the stars, in the desert, without pillows, and Jeannette finds it delightful.
The incidents regarding Jeannette's burns and recovery, and Dad's decision to pick up and move the family, provide greater insight into both her parents and their philosophy toward parenting. To begin, these sections reveal more of Mom's attitude toward life and parenting through her treatment of Jeannette: First, Jeannette is given great independence even though she is only three years old; Mom's logic for this is that Jeannette is mature. Later, Mom commands her to stop crying about the family cat her father throws out of the vehicle, instructing her not to be sentimental. These moments show that Mom is the opposite of a "helicopter" parent — she does not hover over her children or worry about their physical and emotional well-being. Instead, she is confident in their strength as individuals to deal with whatever happens.
Dad shares a similar attitude toward parenting and life, as shown through his scorpion story and his idea of the "skedaddle." The story of Lori's scorpion sting and treatment by a Native American healer shows that Dad eschews traditional notions of medicine. Furthermore, he dismisses traditional values of stability and propriety in his two "skedaddles": first in sneaking Jeannette out of the hospital, and second in uprooting them in the middle of the night, no doubt to avoid some other financial obligation. Through his action and dialogue, Dad shows that he sees himself as separate from social norms and celebrates his family's position on the outskirts of society.
Through her depiction of her father and mother, Walls shows ambivalence to their characters. As a child she revels in her family's independent ways although at the same time, she loves the calm, organized existence she has while staying at the hospital. Also, her tearful reaction to the loss of her pet cat, reveals that her parents' choices affect her deeply and, perhaps, painfully despite their — and often her — cheery demeanor. The reader should pay attention to this ambivalence in Jeannette and see how it changes as she matures.