Summary and Analysis
The Desert Sections 17-18
Six months into his job, Dad loses it, although he insists he did so purposefully so he can focus on searching for gold. The children realize food is going to be scarce, and Jeannette and Brian take to scavenging. Jeannette sneaks into her classroom during recess to steal food from her classmates' lunches. Brian steals a pickle from a neighbor, who catches him and makes him eat the whole jar.
One day, Dad brings home a few groceries and for two days, the family has food. When Mom catches Lori and Jeannette eating the last of the margarine mixed with sugar, she yells at them. They admit their hunger, which makes Mom realize how bad their lives are. She and Dad begin a fight that lasts through the next day, each accusing the other of being the cause of the problem. Mom tells Dad to get a job and stop hanging around the local casino; Dad tells Mom to put her teaching degree to work and get a job. The fight escalates to the point where Dad dangles Mom out of a second floor window, the neighbors gathering outside to watch. The kids, having gone outside, rush into the house to force Dad to pull Mom back through the window.
The next day, Mom accompanies the children to school and applies for a teaching job, which she receives immediately because Battle Mountain is always short on teachers. She teaches Lori's class in a similar fashion to how she parents: She lets the kids have complete freedom as long as they do not hurt each other. Soon, the principal and other teachers are upset with her unorthodox approach to teaching. Lori leads her siblings in helping their mother teach, with Lori writing and editing Mom's lesson plans and Jeannette and Brian grading quizzes. Mom hates teaching because she sees it as a failure, as proof that she is no good as an artist.
Through Mom and Dad's fight and Mom's attitude toward teaching, Walls exposes the contradictions in her parents' philosophies and provides deeper characterization of her sister, Lori. Whereas in earlier sections, Mom and Dad expounded upon the value of self-sufficiency, the stories in these sections show that they are not able to live up to these values. First, Dad loses his job and while he tries to paint the loss as a hopeful event, it is clear it bothers him that he is unable to provide for himself and his family. Dad's despair manifests itself in his regular absence from home and his anger at Mom's suggestion that they borrow money from her mother, which adds to his feeling of inadequacy. Through Dad's inability to face his own demons, Walls shows that Dad's audacity and vivacious character is dependent on his ability to provide for his family. When that ability is gone, he is unable to handle the situation maturely, going so far as to dangle his wife from a second-story window.
Mom also proves unable to live up to her ideal of self-sufficiency. When Dad suggests she finds a job teaching she does so, but reluctantly. The fact that she has not done so earlier, even though her children are clearly starving, shows that while she claims to support self-sufficiency, she values her own freedom more than the health and welfare of her children. Thus, part of Mom's belief in self-sufficiency is really just a means to justify her desire to not take responsibility for her children. For example, after catching Jeannette and Lori eating margarine, she warns them that "it's not my fault if you're hungry," showing that although she is upset about the state of affairs for the family, she would still prefer that the responsibility fall on the traditional provider, Dad.
Finally, Lori's character emerges more fully in this chapter when Lori takes the lead in helping Mom prepare for teaching school. Lori, the oldest of the children, is distant from Jeannette and Brian, not sharing their adventurous nature. By proofreading Mom's work and helping her cut out magazine pictures for art projects, Lori demonstrates a love of exactness, of working with paper and pen rather than the rocks and animals that dominate Brian and Jeannette's worlds. In these sections, Lori comes across as mature and thoughtful beyond her years.