Parts I and II

In this memoir Jeannette Walls recounts a turbulent childhood with her eccentric and dysfunctional family.

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  1. potential

    existing in possibility
    Mom’s gestures were all familiar—the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of
    potential value that she’d hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked.
  2. tentatively

    in a hesitant manner
    The wiener was hot, so Juju licked at it
    tentatively, but when I stood up and started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side.
  3. stunned

    in a state of mental numbness as resulting from shock
    I put it in my mouth and was
    stunned by the sharp sweetness.
  4. vulgar

    conspicuously and tastelessly indecent
    It was a disgusting low-class habit, and the nurse should have consulted her before encouraging me in such
    vulgar behavior.
  5. lopsided

    having one side lower or smaller or lighter than the other
    Tinkerbell’s once perfect little nose had completely disappeared, and her saucy red lips had been replaced with an ugly,
    lopsided smear.
  6. accelerate

    move faster
    Quixote landed with a screeching meow and a thud, Dad
    accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.
  7. sentimental

    marked by tender, romantic, or nostalgic emotion
    “Don’t be so
    sentimental,” Mom said.
  8. rousing

    capable of stirring enthusiasm or excitement
    To distract us kids, Mom got us singing songs like “Don’t Fence Me In” and “This Land Is Your Land,” and Dad led us in
    rousing renditions of “Old Man River” and his favorite, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
  9. executive

    a person responsible for the administration of a business
    Sometimes he would make mysterious references to
    executives from Standard Oil who were trying to steal the Texas land that Mom’s family owned, and FBI agents who were after Dad for some dark episode that he never told us about because he didn’t want to put us in danger, too.
  10. unidentifiable

    impossible to recognize
    That way, he explained, he burned up the brand name, and if the people who were tracking us looked in his ashtray, they’d find
    unidentifiable butts instead of Pall Malls that could be traced to him.
  11. nomad

    a member of a people who have no permanent home
    We moved around like
  12. desolate

    providing no shelter or sustenance
    The more
    desolate and isolated a place was, the better Mom and Dad liked it.
  13. thrive

    make steady progress
    Most people had trouble surviving in the desert, but Mom
    thrived there.
  14. insulate

    surround with material to protect from heat, cold, or noise
    One time when a neighbor’s TV set broke, Dad opened the back and used a macaroni noodle to
    insulate some crossed wires.
  15. foolhardy

    marked by defiant disregard for danger or consequences
    “There’s many a damned
    foolhardy thing that your old man has done, but this one was harebrained even for a crazy sonofabitch like Rex Walls.”
  16. verge

    the limit beyond which something happens or changes
    Dad was on the
    verge of perfecting his cyanide gold process, Brian and I had the desert, Lori and Mom painted and read together, and Maureen, who had silky white-blond hair and a whole gang of imaginary friends, was happy running around with no diaper on.
  17. immortalize

    make famous forever
    It grieved Mom that the mine was destroying so much white rock—she said it was real marble and deserved a better fate and that, by making her sculptures, she was at least
    immortalizing some of it.
  18. primitive

    characteristic of an earlier ancestral type
    She didn’t have any particular style; some of her paintings were what she called
    primitive, some were impressionistic and abstract, some were realistic.
  19. blasphemy

    profane language
    Mom got upset at Dad’s
    blasphemy, reached her foot over to the driver’s side, and stomped on the brake.
  20. irrigation

    the act of supplying dry land with water by artificial means
    He dug a bunch of
    irrigation ditches that drained water out of the Colorado River to grow lettuce and grapes and broccoli right there in the middle of all the cactus and sagebrush.
  21. stagger

    walk with great difficulty
    One of her friends pushed me to the ground and kicked me in the face; then they all ran off, the girl I had hit holding her head as she
    staggered along.
  22. diminutive

    a word that is formed with a suffix to indicate smallness
    But we’d call the baby Maureen, a name Mom liked because it was a
    diminutive of Mary, so she’d also be naming the baby after herself but pretty much no one would know it.
  23. hazardous

    involving risk or danger
    Toxic and
    hazardous wastes were stored in another: corner of the dump, where you could find old batteries, oil drums, paint cans, and bottles with skulls and crossbones.
  24. ingenuity

    the power of creative imagination
    Before, whenever we were out of food, Dad was always there, full of ideas and
  25. fulfill

    meet a want or need
    She thought rules and discipline held people back and felt that the best way to let children
    fulfill their potential was by providing freedom.
  26. centrifugal

    tending to move away from the middle
    They’d stick their heads into her classroom and see the students playing tag and throwing erasers while Mom was up front, spinning like a top and letting pieces of chalk fly from her hands to demonstrate
    centrifugal force.
  27. wheedle

    influence or urge by gentle urging, caressing, or flattering
    If she tried, he’d argue and
    wheedle and sulk and bully and plain wear her down.
  28. evasive

    deliberately vague or ambiguous
    So she resorted to
    evasive tactics.
  29. corrugated

    shaped into alternating parallel grooves and ridges
    Billy lived with his dad in a house made of tar paper and
    corrugated tin, down the tracks from our house.
  30. delinquent

    a young offender
    After all, Billy was a certified JD—juvenile
  31. justifiable

    capable of being shown to be reasonable
    Dad had always said that self-defense was a
    justifiable reason for shooting someone.
  32. nuance

    a subtle difference in meaning or opinion or attitude
    We tried to explain that Billy had started it, that we’d been provoked and were defending ourselves and didn’t even aim to kill, but the cop wasn’t interested in the
    nuances of the situation.
  33. flourish

    grow vigorously
    “My art career is going to
    flourish in Phoenix. I can just feel it.”
  34. killjoy

    someone who spoils the pleasure of others
    Mom, however, said nuns were
    killjoys who took the fun out of religion.
  35. cajole

    influence or urge by gentle urging, caressing, or flattering
    Although we lived outside the district, Mom begged and
    cajoled the principal until he allowed us to enroll.
  36. feeble

    lacking strength or vigor
    They prevented people with
    feeble eyes from learning to see the world on their own.
  37. pithy

    concise and full of meaning
    If the typewriter keys were clattering away, she was at work on one of her novels, poems, plays, short stories, or her illustrated collection of
    pithy sayings—one was “Life is a bowl of cherries, with a few nuts thrown in”—which she’d titled “R. M. Walls’s Philosophy of Life.”
  38. scuttle

    move about or proceed hurriedly
    After a while, entire armies were
    scuttling across the walls and the floors and the kitchen counters.
  39. vagrant

    a wanderer with no established residence or means of support
    From time to time, a
    vagrant or a wino would wander through the front door, assuming the house was deserted.
  40. sweltering

    excessively hot and humid; marked by sweating and faintness
    Since the weather was
    sweltering, she suggested we cool off by jumping into the fountain in front of the building.
  41. hostile

    characterized by enmity or ill will
    He didn’t do it to be
  42. vigorous

    characterized by forceful and energetic action or activity
    Dad gave the cheetah the kind of hardy,
    vigorous petting you’d give a big dog.
  43. coincidental

    occurring or operating at the same time
    Even though it seemed awfully
    coincidental, I didn’t want to push my luck by asking too many questions about who this someone was.
  44. felonious

    involving or being or having the nature of a crime
    Lori said it sounded outright
    felonious, but Dad said all he was doing was outsmarting the fat-cat bank owners who shylocked the common man by charging usurious interest rates.
  45. sodden

    wet through and through; thoroughly wet
    Once the fire was out and the
    sodden, burned tree lay smoldering on the floor, we all just stood there.
Created on August 29, 2016
(updated July 19, 2018)