Summary and Analysis Part 2: The Desert Sections 14-16



The kids are enrolled in school and, this time, Jeannette knows better than to show off her smarts and instead remains quiet in her second-grade classroom. Dad thinks she is coasting — not making a real effort — so he has her do her homework in binary numbers, making her translate it back to Arabic numerals after she completes it. One day she does not have time to do so and her teacher makes her stay after school to do her homework "properly."

Outside of school, the Walls children continue their explorations and Jeannette falls in love with all the beautiful rocks and minerals she discovers in the desert. She begins a collection and occasionally holds rock sales, although all her specimens are priced in the hundreds of dollars as she refuses to sell them below their worth. The children also love going to the town dump, and Jeannette and Brian begin collecting items from the toxic waste area to do experiments in a rundown shack they have made into their laboratory. One day Jeannette decides they should test for flammability and the shack goes up in flames. Jeannette dashes away and calls for her father to rescue Brian from the smoke-filled shack.

The children are not given any allowance, so Jeannette and Brian spend some of their time collecting bottles and scrap metal to exchange for cash. They take the small fee they earn to the candy store, always sure to pick the longest lasting candy. During these excursions, they pass by the Green Lantern, a brothel. The children do not understand what goes on there, so Jeannette dares Brian to approach one of the women sunning on the porch. Brian, an undaunted six-year-old, goes for it and has a nice talk with a woman who explains that the women are nice to the men who visit there.

As winter approaches, Dad takes the family to the Hot Pot, a sulfur spring in the hills. While Lori and Brian know how to swim, Jeannette does not and Dad decides today is the day for her lesson. He teaches her to swim by letting her flail and sink in the water, rescuing her, and then throwing her back into the water. Eventually, Jeannette fed up with it, begins to pull away from her father and gain some control over her movements in the water. Furious, Jeannette pouts by the side of the pool. Dad comes to comfort her, assuring her the only way to learn was to sink or swim and that he'd never really let her drown.


Through Mom and Dad's dialogue and action, Walls depicts a fuller portrait of her parents' philosophies toward life. Dad's personal philosophy is further exposed in his attitude toward Jeannette's schooling and his response to Jeannette and Brian's experiment going up in flames. In both cases, Dad embraces learning first. In the first scenario, he sees that Jeannette is not challenged by school, so creates a challenge for her. In the second, instead of reprimanding the children for playing with dangerous chemicals, he quietly reflects on their desire to understand the world they live in, their natural curiosity. Through both scenes, Walls shows that her father highly values learning and is willing to let his children take risks in order to learn and nurture their natural curiosity.

Mom's philosophy focuses on the issue of self-sufficiency, which was first revealed in her willingness to let three-year-old Jeannette cook hot dogs. Mom extends her value of self-sufficiency to animals as well, refusing to feed the family's pets anything but leftovers. These two examples are further highlighted by Mom's lack of response to Dad's swimming lessons with Jeannette. While seven-year-old Jeannette swallows water and flails helplessly over and over, Mom floats by placidly, with no outward reaction. Thus, Walls shows that her mother values self-sufficiency over compassion and trusts that suffering will result in resilience. Indeed, resiliency seems to be a point where both Dad and Mom's philosophies line up — they are willing to put their children in harm's way out of a belief that overcoming obstacles is key to instilling their children with a strong sense of self and reliance on that self.

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