Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Genre: Memoir
Publisher, Year: Scribner, 2005
Other Works: Half Broke Horses
Flags: Adult themes, tenuous references
Rating: A-, or Good w/ Minor Problems
Challenge: Countdown, Library
Premise: The story of a girl growing up with a nomadic family in poverty--and how she overcame it.

As I was reading through this memoir, I could hear my mother’s voice in my mind, with her nose scrunched in disgust, saying, “I don’t like movies where the child is the mother and the mother is a child.” (We were watching Anywhere But Here at the time.) That line pretty much sums up this book for me. But, I did in fact like the book, it was just frustrating as all get out to watch this little family go down the drain because of two incompetent, selfish people.

Jeannette Walls, at the age of three, cooks hotdogs when she gets hungry. Her mother thinks children should be independent. So, she gets out a big pot, fills it with water, and boils her own hotdogs. One time, she makes the mistake of cooking her hotdogs in a fluffy pink tutu over a gas stove. Delicate tulle plus open flame--I think you can guess what happened next. This is the first occurrence in a long line of neglect, inflicted on four siblings who find solace only in sticking together. By the end of the long and arduous journey out of childhood, I was so anxious for the Walls’ kids to get out from under their family oppression and be a success in life, I couldn’t stop reading until I knew they would be alright. Although I suppose “alright” is a relative term. +/-

Although Walls’s parents have many faults, they weren’t sinister. They suffered from other debilitations. Namely, it seems they were the type of people who just weren’t meant to be adults, not to mention parents. They are so burdened by their lives (raising children, earning a living, managing a household--down to the most basic, like eating, taking a bath, cleaning their clothes, etc.), that they just run from responsibility at every turn. But what really got to me was the ways in which their selfish needs manifested, such as Dad quitting his job to work on a “machine” to mine gold (the supposed “answer to their poverty”) and Mom spending what little money they had on chocolate bars while her kids ate from the cafeteria trash at school, not to mention hiding the chocolate so only she could indulge herself. It seemed everything they did just shouted, “We’re the ones who need a mom and dad! We can’t take care of ourselves—it’s too hard!”

As I was reading through these dreadful tales, only becoming more and more desperate by every turn of the page, I began to wonder why the author would want to air this story in front of the world. What compelled her to share this story? I’m sure writing the novel must have been cathartic in that no one could really escape such a past unscathed, but maybe it also had something to do with her love for her parents. Even though they can be pretty despicable, the author doesn’t pass judgment. In some moments, she writes about them as tenderly and caring as any loving daughter, especially her father, who gave her intangible gifts of knowledge and self esteem—and a star in the sky at Christmas. His love was clouded by alcoholism, but that didn’t make it less real to Walls. They are certainly not ideal, but they are her parents. She knows for better or worse, she’s influenced by them, and not all the things they did or taught her were bad.

The Glass Castle is a house that Walls’s father always wanted to build. He spent painstaking hours perfecting the designs. He wanted to take care of his family and be a good parent, he just could not get the motivation to really do it. He dreamt big, but he lived small—very small. I think Walls took a lesson from that. That you can’t just dream big, you have to live big, too. And she did. She worked hard and never let her desire for more get in the way of her responsibilities or her success. And maybe she has her parents to thank for that.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but it’s not one I’d ever want to read again. The author is a compelling storyteller, which makes the novel hard to put down. And although frustrating, once you can accept the inanity of her parents, the book can be quite an inspiring story of overcoming all odds.

1 comment:

Gini said...

Camie, have you read Half-Broke Horses? It's about Jeannette Walls' maternal grandmother. Fascinating and an unbelievably stark contrast to how her mother turned out!