Jeannette Walls begins her memoir with a scene from adulthood. While in a taxi in New York City on a cold evening in March, she wonders if she has overdressed for the party she will be attending. When she looks out the window, she sees her mother, dressed in rags and picking through a dumpster. Jeannette slides down in her seat to avoid being recognized, and asks the driver to take her home.
Inside her upscale apartment, Jeannette is overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing for living so comfortably while her parents are homeless. She calls Mom, and they meet for lunch at a Chinese restaurant to discuss if there’s anything Jeannette can do to help. Mom refuses her offer, maintaining that she and Dad are living the way they want to. Mom urges Jeannette to accept her family as they are and to be honest about who she is.
In Part II, Jeannette goes back to her very first memory, which takes place when Jeannette is three years old and living in a trailer park in southern Arizona. While she boils hot dogs over the stove, the tutu she is wearing catches fire, engulfing in flames. Her mother smothers the flame with a blanket, and the neighbor rushes them to the hospital. At the hospital, the doctors say Jeannette is lucky to be alive and perform a skin graft, replacing the skin on Jeannette’s badly burned sides with skin from her thighs.
Mom, Dad, her older sister Lori, and her younger brother Brian visit when they can, and they usually cause a scene. They talk and argue in loud voices, and on one occasion Dad physically threatens one of the doctors because he doesn’t think they should use so many bandages on Jeannette’s burns. At the end of her six-week hospital stay, Dad rushes her out of the hospital without paying, a scheme he calls “checking out Rex Walls-style.” At home, Jeannette goes right back to cooking hot dogs without supervision and develops a fascination with fire, playing with matches and setting and putting out small fires in the yard. A couple months later, Dad wakes up the whole family in the middle of the night and tells them they have to leave town. They sleep outside that night, without pillows, which Dad says will give them good posture like the Indians.
The Wallses often leave town in the middle of the night, which Dad calls “doing the skedaddle.” Dad struggles to keep a job for very long, so they move every couple of months, usually to stay ahead of the bill collectors. Sometimes, the family goes to Phoenix to stay with Jeannette’s maternal grandmother, but Dad and Grandma Smith argue often, so they never stay long. They spend most of their time in various desert mining towns. In the desert, Mom and Dad teach the kids reading and mathematics as well as specialized survival skills, such as how to forage for food and shoot pistols. They don’t wear shoes or use toothbrushes, and the family eats irregularly. Once, when a vineyard owner in California allows people to come and pick their own grapes for five cents a pound, the family eats nothing but green grapes for weeks.
The striking wealth disparity in the memoir’s opening scene grabs the reader’s attention by introducing the confusing relationship between Jeannette and her mother. Though dramatic in its juxtaposition, an encounter between a wealthy New Yorker in a cab and a homeless woman is nevertheless a familiar image because in major metropolitan cities extreme prosperity and poverty often exist in close proximity. However, Jeannette turns this image on its head when she casually refers to the dispossessed woman as “Mom,” and then later walks into her own luxurious apartment building only a few blocks away. Because of their relationship the extreme differences in their respective lives appear not only unjust but also cruel. Furthermore, Jeannette’s memories of her mother painting in the desert, reading Shakespeare, and refusing financial assistance undermine a long list of stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness. By the time these two women bicker about cosmetic hair removal treatments in a Chinese restaurant, we may find their relationship puzzling and confusing. The strange nature of their encounter, then, causes the reader to wonder how this could happen, encouraging us to continue reading in order to discover the answer.