Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in the southwest and Welch, West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York City for twenty years. Her previous book was the memoir The Glass Castle. She is married to writer John Taylor and lives in Virginia.
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Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.
It was late on an August afternoon, the air hot and heavy like it usually was in the rainy season. Earlier we'd seen some thunderheads near the Burnt Spring Hills, but they'd passed way up to the north. I'd mostly finished my chores for the day and was heading down to the pasture with my brother, Buster, and my sister, Helen, to bring the cows in for their milking. But when we got there, those girls were acting all bothered. Instead of milling around at the gate, like they usually did at milking time, they were standing stiff-legged and straight-tailed, twitching their heads around, listening.
Buster and Helen looked up at me, and without a word, I knelt down and pressed my ear to the hard-packed dirt. There was a rumbling, so faint and low that you felt it more than you heard it. Then I knew what the cows knew -- a flash flood was coming.
As I stood up, the cows bolted, heading for the southern fence line, and when they reached the barbed wire, they jumped over it -- higher and cleaner than I'd ever seen cows jump -- and then they thundered off toward higher ground.
I figured we best bolt, too, so I grabbed Helen and Buster by the hand. By then I could feel the ground rumbling through my shoes. I saw the first water sluicing through the lowest part of the pasture, and I knew we didn't have time to make it to higher ground ourselves. In the middle of the field was an old cottonwood tree, broad-branched and gnarled, and we ran for that.
Helen stumbled, so Buster grabbed her other hand, and we lifted her off the ground and carried her between us as we ran. When we reached the cottonwood, I pushed Buster up to the lowest branch, and he pulled Helen into the tree behind him. I shimmied up and wrapped my arms around Helen just as a wall of water, about six feet high and pushing rocks and tree limbs in front of it, slammed into the cottonwood, dousing all three of us. The tree shuddered and bent over so far that you could hear wood cracking, and some lower branches were torn off. I feared it might be uprooted, but the cottonwood held fast and so did we, our arms locked as a great rush of caramel-colored water, filled with bits of wood and the occasional matted gopher and tangle of snakes, surged beneath us, spreading out across the lowland and seeking its level.
We just sat there in that cottonwood tree watching for about an hour. The sun started to set over the Burnt Spring Hills, turning the high clouds crimson and sending long purple shadows eastward. The water was still flowing beneath us, and Helen said her arms were getting tired. She was only seven and was afraid she couldn't hold on much longer.
Buster, who was nine, was perched up in the big fork of the tree. I was ten, the oldest, and I took charge, telling Buster to trade places with Helen so she could sit upright without having to cling too hard. A little while later, it got dark, but a bright moon came out and we could see just fine. From time to time we all switched places so no one's arms would wear out. The bark was chafing my thighs, and Helen's, too, and when we needed to pee, we had to just wet ourselves. About halfway through the night, Helen's voice started getting weak.
"I can't hold on any longer," she said.
"Yes, you can," I told her. "You can because you have to." We were going to make it, I told them. I knew we would make it because I could see it in my mind. I could see us walking up the hill to the house tomorrow morning, and I could see Mom and Dad running out. It would happen -- but it was up to us to make it happen.
To keep Helen and Buster from drifting off to sleep and falling out of the cottonwood, I grilled them on their multiplication tables. When we'd run through those, I went on to presidents and state capitals, then word definitions, word rhymes, and whatever else I could come up with, snapping at them if their voices faltered, and that was how I kept Helen and Buster awake through the night.
By first light, you could see that the water still covered the ground. In most places, a flash flood drained away after a couple of hours, but the pasture was in bottomland near the river, and sometimes the water remained for days. But it had stopped moving and had begun seeping down through the sinkholes and mudflats.
"We made it," I said.
I figured it would be safe to wade through the water, so we scrambled out of the cottonwood tree. We were so stiff from holding on all night that our joints could scarcely move, and the mud kept sucking at our shoes, but we got to dry land as the sun was coming up and climbed the hill to the house just the way I had seen it.
Dad was on the porch, pacing back and forth in that uneven stride he had on account of his gimp leg. When he saw us, he let out a yelp of delight and started hobbling down the steps toward us. Mom came running out of the house. She sank to her knees, clasped her hands in front of her, and started praying up to the heavens, thanking the Lord for delivering her children from the flood.
It was she who had saved us, she declared, by staying up all night praying. "You get down on your knees and thank your guardian angel," she said. "And you thank me, too."
Helen and Buster got down and started praying with Mom, but I just stood there looking at them. The way I saw it, I was the one who'd saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel. No one was up in that cottonwood tree except the three of us. Dad came alongside me and put his arm around my shoulders.
"There weren't no guardian angel, Dad," I said. I started explaining how I'd gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them.
Dad squeezed my shoulder. "Well, darling," he said, "maybe the angel was you."
We had a homestead on Salt Draw, which flowed into the Pecos River, in the rolling gritty grassland of west Texas. The sky was high and pale, the land low and washed out, gray and every color of sand. Sometimes the wind blew for days on end, but sometimes it was so still you could hear the dog barking on the Dingler ranch two miles upriver, and when a wagon came down the road, the dust it trailed hung in the air for a long time before drifting back to the ground.
When you looked out across the land, most everything you could see -- the horizon, the river, the fence lines, the gullies, the scrub cedar -- was spread out and flat, and the people, cattle, horses, lizards, and water all moved slowly, conserving themselves.
It was hard country. The ground was like rock -- save for when a flood turned everything to mud -- the animals were bony and tough, and even the plants were prickly and sparse, though from time to time the thunderstorms brought out startling bursts of wildflowers. Dad said High Lonesome, as the area was known, wasn't a place for the soft of head or the weak of heart, and he said that was why he and I made out just fine there, because we were both tough nuts.
Our homestead was only 160 acres, which was not a whole lot of land in that part of Texas, where it was so dry you needed at least five acres to raise a single head of cattle. But our spread bordered the draw, so it was ten times more valuable than land without water, and we were able to keep the carriage horses Dad trained, the milking cows, dozens of chickens, some hogs, and the peacocks.
The peacocks were one of Dad's moneymaking schemes that didn't quite pan out. Dad had paid a lot of money to import breeding peacocks from a farm back east. He was convinced that peacocks were a sure-fire sign of elegance and style, and that folks who bought carriage horses from him would also be willing to shell out fifty bucks for one of those classy birds. He planned to sell only the male birds so we'd be the sole peacock breeders this side of the Pecos.
Unfortunately, Dad overestimated the demand for ornamental birds in west Texas -- even among the carriage set -- and within a few years, our ranch was overrun with peacocks. They strutted around screeching and squawking, pecking our knees, scaring the horses, killing chicks, and attacking the hogs, though I have to admit it was a glorious sight when, from time to time, those peacocks paused in their campaign of terror to spread their plumes and preen.
The peacocks were just a sideline. Dad's primary occupation was the carriage horses, breeding them and training them. He loved horses despite the accident. When Dad was a boy of three, he was running through the stable and a horse kicked him in the head, practically staving in his skull. Dad was in a coma for days, and no one thought he'd pull through. He eventually did, but the right side of his body had gone a little gimp. His right leg sort of dragged behind him, and his arm was cocked like a chicken wing. Also, when he was young, he'd spent long hours working in the noisy gristmill on his family's ranch, which made him hard of hearing. As such, he talked a little funny, and until you spent time around him, you had trouble understanding what he said.
Dad never blamed the horse for kicking him. All the horse knew, he liked to say, was that some creature about the size of a mountain lion was darting by his flanks. Horses were never wrong. They always did what they did for a reason, and it was up to you to figure it out. And even though it was a horse that almost stove in Dad's skull, he loved horses because, unlike people, they always understood him and never pitied him. So, even though Dad was unable to sit in a saddle on account of the accident, he became an expert at training carriage horses. If he couldn't ride them, he could drive them.
I was born in a dugout on the banks of Salt Draw in 1901, the year after Dad got out of prison, where he'd been serving time on that trumped-up murder charge.
Dad had grown up on a ranch in the Hondo Valley in New Mexico. His pa, who'd homesteaded the land, was one of the first Anglos in the valley, arri...From AudioFile:
Following up her previous book, the hugely successful memoir THE GLASS CASTLE, Jeannette Walls is back with another family saga, this time a novel that features her grandmother Lily. Walls delivers a compelling, plainspoken performance that conveys every emotion of the novel. It's easy to imagine the family stories being told and retold, polished and shaped, as Lily gave them their own cadence, clearly defined emphasis, and tempo. The story starts off with a bang as Lily rescues herself and her siblings from a flash flood in Texas and goes on to recount her fierce determination to get an education and become a teacher, along the way facing down tornadoes, drought, and the Great Depression, Walls brings her grandmother's indomitable character vividly to life. D.G. © AudioFile 2009, Portland, Maine
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