Summary and Analysis
The Desert Sections 9-10
Jeannette and her siblings grow up without the myth of Santa Claus, with both parents informing them that the myth is foolish to make up for the fact that they cannot afford to buy their children nice gifts. Instead, each year, the family waits to have Christmas a week after December 25, scavenging Christmas decorations from trash and scoring deals on post-holiday sales. The year Jeannette is five, her father loses his job at the gypsum mine, so instead of store-bought presents, he takes each child out to the desert at night where they gaze up at the stars choose one as their own. Jeannette selects Venus, so she ends up with a planet instead.
Some time passes and Mom announces that she should have the baby soon, so the family picks up and moves to Blythe, California, in order to be near a hospital. On the drive over, Dad sips tequila and he and Mom argue about how long she gestates. Mom insists that her children come out later than most; Dad says she is crazy. The fight escalates and Mom hops out of the car and runs into the desert. Dad steers the car after her, chasing her down, despite the children's worried pleas. Finally, he corners her and stops the car, gets out, and drags her back in.
The next day they make up. They rent an apartment in Blythe and, because it is a larger town than the ones in which they usually reside, the kids go to school. Jeannette enjoys school, but finds other students dislike her because she is smart. One day, a group of girls attack her on her walk home from school. Although Jeannette shrugs off the fight, Brian defends her the next day when the girls go on the attack again. The siblings are pretty beaten up, being outnumbered.
When Mom finally gives birth, she has another girl, who she names Maureen.
In these sections, Walls contrasts the relationship Mom and Dad have with their children with the one that exists between them as wife and husband. When Dad gives the children stars at Christmas, the stars act as a metaphor for what the family values. For instance, when Dad assures the children their stars (and planet) will outlast the cheap gifts that other children receive, he not only distracts his children from their poverty, but also provides them with a moral system: material things do not matter — what matters is the beauty of nature, the kindness between individuals.
This moment of tenderness, however, contrasts with the scene of Dad using the car to chase down Mom. Dad is consistently kind and understanding with his children; he and Mom have a more tense relationship. While both Dad and Mom are quirky individuals, they do not share the same quirks. Dad, a talented engineer and mathematician, is easily annoyed with Mom's more creative, holistic view of life. Their fight about how long she gestates illustrates this. For Mom, it is no problem that she thinks she gestates for up to fourteen months; for Dad this departure from logic is reprehensible and so they fight. This fight foreshadows future altercations between Mom and Dad as they try to live with each other and love each other despite their different value systems.
Finally, this scene also complicates the theme of stability and instability. While up to this point, Mom and Dad have acted consistently with absent-minded but sincere kindness, their fight — and the fear it strikes in the children — indicates that the fluidity Mom and Dad cherish so much might be harmful to their children. Thus, while Mom and Dad believe turmoil makes the family stronger, the children's reaction to their fight suggests that maybe there is such a thing as too much instability.