Forgiveness is the major theme of this memoir. The author proves over and over again how she holds no bad feelings toward her parents and the horrendous childhood she endured through their neglect. No matter how many times her parents either betray, frustrate, belittle, or scare her half to death, Walls finds some way of turning their actions into deeds of love. She never points fingers at her parents, blaming them for their neglect. Even though she sometimes would like to tell them what she honestly thinks of them, she holds these thoughts to herself and continues to nod her head in their favor. Her mother and father both squander money on themselves, often leaving their children with no food or warm clothes. And still, Walls does not wallow in self pity. She sees who her parents are and moves on, finding solutions for her problems through pure determination to survive.
Unconditional love is another theme, one that is closely related to forgiveness. Though she is anxious to get away from her parents and the life they have made her suffer through, Walls still loves her parents. She is disappointed when her parents follow her and her siblings to New York, and yet she loves them enough to want to help them better their living conditions. She never turns her back on them, though she certainly has enough reasons to do so. The only time that she pushes her father away is when she graduates from college and does not invite him to her commencement. She is afraid that he will show up drunk and begin to argue with the valedictorian. She carries some guilt inside of her because of this and later apologizes to Rex. But that is the only time she comes close to faltering in her love, especially for her father.
Hunger floats through this memoir, sometimes so desperately that readers begin to feel as if they too were starving. The children seldom have enough food to eat. But it is not just the hunger of the body that is expressed in this memoir. There is also the hunger for affection; the hunger for friends and acceptance; and the hunger for warmth and clean clothes.
Rose Mary and Rex stressed the need for their children to attain self-reliance, though readers might argue that neither of the parents were capable of it. The parents often stressed this value at times when they were incapable or unwilling to give their children the guidance and nurturing that all young children need. When one goes hungry, Rose Mary could well have said, one finds food wherever it is available. And thus Jeannette and Brian scrounge for tidbits of apples and bread crusts in the trashcans when there is no food at home. Jeannette takes a job at thirteen when she is legally too young to work so that she and her siblings can eat. The children walk miles into the woods to find branches they can burn in the stove to give them heat. This is the self-reliance the children have learned and how Rose Mary and Rex taught it to their children.