Summary and Analysis Part 2: The Desert Sections 6-8



Four-year-old Jeannette and seven-year-old Lori sit in the family station wagon with Brian, waiting for their parents to leave a rundown rural Nevada casino. The two girls discuss how many times they've moved; they count eleven places. Mom and Dad return with treats for the kids and pull out into the desert. Dad takes a quick turn, causing the back door to fly open and little Jeannette to tumble out. Once she regains consciousness, she waits by the road, worried that her family will abandon her; however, after a while, they return and Dad rushes out of the car and comforts her while pulling pebbles out of her skin with pliers.

Sometime later, they move to Las Vegas and live in a cheap hotel. During the day, Dad counts cards at the blackjack table and the kids look for spare change in the slot machine trays. One night while their parents are out, a fire starts in their hotel room and Jeannette, paralyzed by her last close call by fire, wakes but is unable to scream or waken her siblings. Dad enters the room and carries the kids to the safety of the bar across the street.

After moving a few more times, the family is driving through the desert. Mom makes Dad stop the car because she sees a tree that catches her eye: a Joshua tree, permanently windblown from growing in the barren desert. She insists on painting the tree and while she does, Dad stops at the next town over and finds a house to rent and they make their home in Midland, California.

One night in the new house Jeannette is certain she has seen something creeping across her bedroom floor despite Lori's insistence she is making it up. She tells Dad and he says it must be Demon, and so they hunt for it in the house and outside. When they do not find anything, Dad assures Jeannette that Demon, like all monsters, flees whenever you show you are brave enough to look him in the eye.

Eventually, Dad gets a job in a gypsum mine in Midland and Mom is pregnant again. She paints many portraits of the Joshua tree and tells Jeannette, who would like to transplant a Joshua tree sapling and protect it from the wind, that it needs the wind to survive.


In these sections, Walls develops the character of Dad, provides another metaphor for her family through the Joshua tree, and establishes the theme of instability versus stability. While previous sections of The Desert provided insight into Dad's unbalanced behavior, these sections show that Dad's character is not only consistently irrational but also consistently loving to his family. Wall relates Dad's first act of love when he returns to find Jeannette on the side of the road. Not only does he assure her he will never abandon her, but he also makes a joke, calling her broken nose a "snot locker". By bringing levity to this potentially tragic moment, Dad relieves Jeannette of her fear of abandonment and restores tranquility to the situation. Similarly, when he and Jeannette hunt Demon, he does not dismiss her fears, but provides her with a way to fight them. Thus Walls shows that Dad, while he has his flaws, is an imaginative man who understands children and does the best he can to be a good parent.

Secondly, Walls uses the Joshua tree as a metaphor for her family, building on the metaphor of the cactus she used earlier. The Joshua tree is gnarled and bent from its years surviving in the desert, yet its roots are strong and able to keep it upright. In many ways, the Walls family is similar; it may appear dysfunctional, but beneath the dysfunction is actual love and, at least in Mom and Dad's eyes, that love thrives on the same kind of hardship that the Joshua tree thrives on.

Finally, in these sections the family moves frequently but their character remains constant. Through this juxtaposition of stable personalities in fluid circumstances, Walls brings to the foreground the theme of stability and instability and how the two often coexist. For example, while Dad makes the family move frequently — either because of cheating a casino or a mild interaction with a San Francisco police officer — he consistently treats Jeannette with kindness and understanding. The reader should notice how these fluctuations between stable and instable evolve as the memoir continues.

Back to Top