Last Updated on March 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012
Jeannette Walls is the author, the narrator, and the main character of this story. She is an adult when the memoir begins, but shortly after the first chapter, she starts telling the story of her life beginning with when she was three years old. By the end of the story, Jeannette has journeyed through her childhood, into adolescence, and then returns to her adult self, a career woman working in New York City.
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Jeannette is the second oldest of four children. As a youth, she did not find herself attractive. She was very tall, very thin, and had somewhat large, protruding teeth. Her classmates often teased her about her looks. She was also self-conscious, as a teen, about a large, puckered scar on her abdomen, the result of the bad burn and the resultant skin graft she had to have when she was three. Though her parents often kept her out of school because they moved around so much, when she did attend, Jeannette did well.
Her parents were often negligent in their care of Jeannette and her siblings. However, Jeannette found a way to love them. She retells her story without anger and judgment of her mother and father. She found strength within herself to counteract her parent’s lack of maturity and substance. She worked hard to bring in money for food before she was legally old enough to hold a job. When she was seventeen, she left home and together with her older sister, Lori, made a life for herself, earning a scholarship from an Ivy League college and gaining a bachelor’s degree.
Rose Mary Walls
Rose Mary Walls is Jeannette’s mother. She is a painter. Many of the stories that Jeannette tells of her mother reflect her mother’s attitude of always wanting to paint rather than to tend to her children. Rose Mary appears to be a selfish woman and is, at one point, caught eating a candy bar in secret when her children have not had food for several days. Rose Mary is emotionally detached from her children. Her attitude is one of leaving the children to fend for themselves. She believed that by encouraging self-sufficiency, she was making her children stronger.Though she herself was raised in comfort, Rose Mary professes the benefits of anti-capitalism to the point that she is willing to live in a shack without running water and little or no heat.
Rex Walls is Jeannette’s father. Through Jeanette’s eyes, her father is a genius. He is very clever, has a wealth of information about a wide range of topics, but he is also an alcoholic. Rex manipulates everyone in the family, especially Jeannette. Though he steals from her and uses her to distract men he is gambling with, Jeannette loves him. She loves that he tells her she is special, when no one else in the world seems to pay any attention to her. Rex takes on a variety of jobs throughout Jeannette’s childhood, working as an electrician, and later as an engineer at a mine, but he loses every job he starts. He is stubborn and believes he knows how to do things better than those around him. By the time Jeannette is a teen, Rex no longer attempts to find a job.Instead he spends his days and nights at a local bar. To pay for his drinking habit, he forces his wife to give him money. Before the end of the memoir, Rex dies of a heart attack.
Lori Walls is the oldest child of the family. She is two years older than Jeannette but is more reticent. In her youth, Lori had trouble seeing, but she did not know it. She thought everyone saw things blurry. Later, when she gets eyeglasses, she marvels at how clear everything is. She becomes a gifted artist while in high school, winning a scholarship to an art camp. This experience makes her realize how different life is outside of her home and she decides to get away as soon as she can. Without any experience of big city life, she goes to New York City immediately after high school. There she finds a way to sustain herself with her art and encourages Jeannette to follow her. As an adult, she works as an illustrator.
Brian Walls is Jeannette’s brother. Throughout their childhood, Brian and Jeannette are very good friends. They have a lot of interests in common, such as enjoying explorations into the desert by themselves.Brian often comes to Jeannette’s rescue when she has trouble at school or with neighborhood bullies. Brian also ends up living in New York City, and eventually finds a job working for the police force. He marries and becomes a father.
Maureen is the baby of the family. Not much information is offered about her except that she was considered the beauty of the family and was often taken in by neighborhood families who believed she was neglected. At one time in West Virginia, Maureen is heavily influenced by families who go to religious revivals that involve handling snakes as part of their practice. Maureen also ends up in New York City, but she does not fare as well as her siblings. She leaves for California and has very little contact with the rest of her family after that.
Grandma Smith is Rose Mary’s mother. She has a lot of money and Rose Mary often turns to her when she needs financial support. Jeannette loves spending time with her grandmother, who feeds her well. However, the woman dies while Jeannette is still very young. Rose Mary inherits her mother’s home in Arizona. The family lives there for a short time. Jeannette has written a second book based on her Grandma Smith’s life.