Summary – Section Three, Chapters Thirty Nine, Forty, Forty One and Forty Two
Jeannette explains that the family would have food sometimes when their father returned after disappearing for days and also when their mother received a check from the oil company.
Despite this, when Jeannette started sixth grade she and Brian were made fun of for being so skinny. They would read at lunchtime and she would say she had forgotten her food. No one believed her, however, and she started hiding in the bathroom. Here, lunch bags were thrown away and she retrieved what was left.
She adds that ‘weirdly’ her mother was getting heavier at this time. This was explained when one time when Dad was staying away and they had nothing to eat Mom disappeared under her blanket on her bed and Brian noticed she was chewing something. She denied it, but he threw her cover back and revealed she had been eating a huge family-sized Hershey chocolate bar. She had already eaten half of it and started crying, saying she could not help it and said she was addicted to sugar just as their father was addicted to alcohol. She said they should forgive her like they do him. The children said nothing: Brian divided the bar into four pieces and they ‘wolfed it down’.
Chapter Forty explains that winter came hard that year and Jeannette still had the same coat with no buttons that she had when they first came to Welch. Coal was relatively cheap in that area, but Mom said there was no room in the budget for it. They collected pieces that fell of a lorry, but tended to collect wood. Brian also noticed that their home was the only one with no snow on the roof, and that they therefore had absolutely no insulation. Mom said they might not have that, but they did have each other. It was so cold there were icicles inside the house and they wore their coats to bed.
When the wood was too damp to light, they used kerosene to help start the fire, and this was despite their father’s warning. It exploded once when Lori used it and her thighs were scorched. For weeks, the fronts of her legs were open sores.
In Chapter Forty One, it is related that Erma died at the end of their second winter in Welch. Jeannette’s father said her liver failed and her mother saw it as a slow form of suicide and said she drank herself to death.
At the funeral, Jeannette could see her father was distraught and noticed it was the first time she had seen him wear a tie. On their way home, her mother asked the children if they had anything nice to say about Erma now she had passed away. After a moment, Lori said, ‘ding-dong, the witch is dead’ and Jeannette and Brian snickered. Dad glared at them and said they made him ashamed. He turned to go to a bar and they watched him. Lori shouted, ‘You’re ashamed of us?’
He still had not come home after four days and Mom sent Jeannette to find him and said he likes her best. She tracked him down eventually to a bar and when he finally left with her he fell down before he reached the door. A man gave them a lift and as they talked she said she wanted to be either ‘a veterinarian or a geologist specializing in the Miocene period’. She also told him how geodes were formed and this was when he interrupted her and said, ‘“For the daughter of the town drunk, you sure got big plans”’. She asked him to stop the truck but was unable to get her father out so had to carry on with the lift. The driver told her he had meant what he said as a compliment.
The narrative shifts to a couple of months after the death of Erma. Uncle Stanley fell asleep while smoking and their house burned down. He and his father moved to an apartment and this had a bathroom which Jeannette’s family used.
When Jeannette was sat with her uncle while her mother was in the other room and Lori was in the bath, he touched her thigh and started to masturbate. She told her mother and she said, ‘“poor Stanley”’ and added that he was lonely. She asked Jeannette if she was okay, and Jeannette nodded and shrugged. Her mother then said she thought sexual assault was ‘“a crime of perception”’. After this, Jeannette washed at home.
In the spring, the rains came and the ceiling in the kitchen and on Brian and Maureen’s side of the bedroom let more water in. He had to spread a tarpaulin over himself when it rained. Everything in the house was damp and Mom fell through a rotten step and fell down the hillside. The porch and railing had also started to rot and it was now dangerous to go at night to the ‘toilet’ as it meant a 10 foot drop to the ground. Mom agreed with Jeannette that something had to be done and bought a bucket to use as a toilet. When it was full, someone had to carry it outside, dig a hole and empty it.
Chapter Forty Two begins with the story of when Jeannette and Brian were outside on their land and he found a diamond ring. They tested it to see if it was real (and it was) and thought of how they could buy food and pay off the house as there had been talk of an eviction. They might even buy some sneakers too.
They showed the ring to their mother and she said she needed to have it appraised. When she returned, she said it was a genuine two-carat diamond. Jeannette asked what it was worth and Mom said it did not matter as she was keeping it to replace the wedding ring her mother had bought her. Jeannette said it could buy them a lot of food and Mom agreed but said it could also improve her self-esteem and added that this was even more vital ‘“at times like these”’.
The narrative shifts to Jeannette, now aged 12, talking to her mother about how she thought she should leave her father. She said she did not blame Dad for their situation, but if she left him they would qualify for government aid. Earlier she had said how they had only eaten popcorn for three days.
Mom was opposed to welfare and thought it would cause them ‘“irreparable psychological damage”’. Jeannette said if they were not ‘“charity cases”’ then she (Mom) should get a job. Mom said how this sounded awful and then smiled and said she could not leave her husband as she was a Catholic and added that she was ‘“an excitement addict”’.
Analysis – Section Three, Chapters Thirty Nine, Forty, Forty One and Forty Two
These chapters add to the growing catalogue of neglect and cruelty that the Walls children endured. The references to the behavior of Mom is notable here for highlighting the laissez-faire attitude that has always been apparent in her treatment of her children, but this plummets to new depths when we are told that the children had had no food and she was eating in secret.
As happens throughout this work, the adult Jeannette (as author) refuses to openly analyze or extend her critique beyond what she reports to the readers. This is in some ways understandable as she stops short of openly condemning her parents, and yet it is also valid to wonder why she would write of such events without extending her criticism further and enlarge on the debate about child abuse and parental cruelty.