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At her home in Southern Arizona, three-year old Jeannette Walls’ pink dress catches fire while she is cooking hot dogs in her family’s trailer. The account is described as the author’s first memory. Upon hearing her child’s screams, Jeannette’s mother rushes in from the other room and puts out the flames with a wool blanket. She then grabs Jeannette and her younger son, Brian, and goes to the neighboring trailer to ask for a ride to the hospital. Jeannette’s injuries are serious but the doctors are able to treat the burns by giving her a series of skin grafts, replacing the burned skin on her upper body with skin from her upper thigh. However, the nature of the accident prompts the doctors to ask Jeannette a series of questions about her life at home, particularly how it is that she was allowed to use the stove at such a young age. A young Jeannette answers matter-of-factly, asserting that her mother allowed her to cook often because she was ‘mature for [her] age’.
Jeannette enjoys the solitude and order of the hospital, qualities which do not characterize her home life. And she is excited to finally have a room to herself, instead of having to share one with her brother and sister. In the hospital Jeannette is first introduced to chewing gum by one of the nurses. Yet, Mr. and Mrs. Walls are not so pleased and they do not hide their disdain for the hospital and its staff. Mrs. Walls is upset that the nurse gave her daughter chewing gum without asking permission and Mr. Walls is unimpressed by the “ ‘med-school quacks’” that run the hospital. They tell Jeannette about a time when Lori, their eldest daughter, was stung by a scorpion in the desert and instead of taking her to the hospital they took her to a Navajo witch-doctor. Mr. Walls remarks that they should have done the same with Jeannette after her injury. The Walls’ dislike for hospitals is made more apparent when Brian falls off a couch and bloodies his head and Mr. and Mrs. Walls bandage it up themselves instead of taking him to a doctor. At one point Mr. Walls becomes so confrontational with the hospital staff that he is forcibly removed by hospital security. Soon afterward, escaping the hospital (and the accompanying hospital bill), Mr. Walls removes his daughter from her hospital bed without receiving clearance to do so.
After returning from the hospital, Jeannette becomes enthralled by fire. Her parents support this, insistent that she not be defeated or afraid of that which led to her injury. Not only does Jeannette resume cooking hot dogs on the stove (to the delight of her mother) but she also starts to steal her father’s matches. One day while playing with matches she accidentally burns her favorite toy, a Tinkerbell figurine, distorting the doll's face irreparably. Though Tinkerbell remains her favorite toy, Jeannette expresses hope that she could have given Tinkerbell skin graft surgery the way the doctors did for her.