Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Glass Castle

For book club this month, we read The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls. Unfortunately, I got completely mixed up and thought book club was tonight, not last night, so last night I was curled up in my bed, finishing the book. It would have made for a great book club discussion, but from what I heard, several of my friends didn't like the book very much. I actually liked it a lot.

Jeannette Walls tells the story of her childhood--a tale of incredible survival. She seems to honestly report memories of being raised as one of the four children of a pair of grifters. Her alcoholic father could never hold down a job or money to support his family, and her free-spirited artist mother neglected her children's basic needs in order to pursue her own flights of fancy. The children were fending for themselves from the time they could walk. Jeannette recalls being able to cook herself rice on the stove when she was 3 years old, which in itself isn't a bad thing, but when she gets burned and hospitalized, then busted out of the hospital by her parents in the middle of the night so they don't have to pay the bill, the reader starts to see the problem.

With Jeannette's mom and dad it was feast or famine--small periods of stability when her dad would get a job and they'd enroll in school, like the one in Arizona that gave the kids free bananas, then times when the family was living in a rotten rat-infested house on the side of a freezing West Virginia mountain with no plumbing, electricity, or telephone. When the kids miraculously found a diamond ring in their dirt yard one day, their mom declared she'd rather keep it for her self esteem than sell it to buy food, of which they had none. On one hand, you curse the dad and mom for being such horrible examples, and then you admire the fact that they taught their kids to read and write at age 3, do their math homework in binary code, and to think about things like planets, geology, and polar exploration.

The book is written so well, the reader rolls right through, seamlessly transported through experience after jaw-dropping experience highlighting the struggle these kids had to grow up. It reminded me of a tragic Little House on the Prairie. The memories were sad, but engaging and enlightening, so I can say that I enjoyed the book while I certainly do not condone the parenting style it described.

The kids do survive and three out four seem to turn into amazingly talented, successful people, especially the author. At age 17 she follows her older sister to New York, becomes a journalist, and goes to Barnard College. Meanwhile, her parents become homeless on the streets of New York City, but seem to enjoy it just as much as anything else they did in their lives, and it's hard to feel sorry for them at all. One of my favorite parts in the book is when Jeannette relates a college class she was in, where her professor was talking about homelessness. The teacher asked the question whether homelessness is a result of drug abuse or the lack of proper social security and economic opportunities. Jeannette answered that she felt it is sometimes neither, that "people get the lives they want." Her professor became angry and asked, "What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass face?" and Jeannette, a bit ashamed of her past at that point, and unwilling to expose herself, did not explain that she knew firsthand. I think this book is her way of finally explaining to that teacher, and the rest of the world. Sometimes I would stop reading and wonder how she could be so honest about everything, and wonder if there were even darker memories that were just too painful to write down, but then, some of the things she shares are so horrible, I don't know that she could have experienced much worse.

The title comes from a grand scheme Jeannette's father had, or at least a tall tale he told his children. He was working on the plans for a glorious mansion he was going to build, all of glass, powered by solar cells, where his family could live in luxury and self-sufficiency. It struck me that a glass castle was an apt metaphor for the bubble of artificial security that Jeannette's parents built around the family, a fragile gloss that was so transparent and easily broken every time they betrayed their children's trust.

I liked this book because it had a happy ending for Jeannette and her siblings, so it was in many ways a satisfying story of growth and the overcoming of obstacles. There were small moments of fun, adventure, and redemption throughout. I also liked it because it opened my eyes to the fact that there are people in the United States probably still living like Jeannette did, in similarly crazy families, in conditions that would shock us. I wondered if being separated into foster families would have been better or worse for these kids, who formed their own team against the world early on, and loved and protected each other. It made me remember being a kid and how there were always certain kids at school that didn't really fit in because of what they wore or how they smelled, and I wonder why other kids are so cruel and don't realize that children are entirely dependent on their parents for everything. I also thought about alcohol addiction, and this book only added fuel to my belief that alcohol is one of the most dangerous and destructive substances on earth. I read with interest about the author's final conflict: a woman with a Park Avenue address has homeless parents. What would I do in that situation? What would I have done as a child in such a family? Would I have even survived to the age of 7 with such a life?

I admire the author and am inspired that she could become so successful after such a childhood, and wonder how much of that success came from the strength she gained from growing up fast and struggling to survive. Nature or nurture? Not all poor neglected kids turn out great, and not all rich pampered kids do.

So, I guess I liked the book mostly because it was so well written and engaging, because it inspired me, and because it was so thought-provoking. It illuminated a slice of American life I might never have known about otherwise, and real life fascinates me. If this book had been fiction, I would not have believed it, but because it is true, I am fascinated.

1 comment:

tkangaroo said...

I agree with your assessment of the Glass Castle. I was riveted and horrified throughout. I, too, would not have believed any of it if it was a work of fiction--like those books or movies where the protagonist keeps having horrible things happen to them, and then you are just depressed when you are finished. There was such a great message of hope and redemption in it. That you can rise above your upbringing to become someone amazing no matter where you came from. I, too, love that moment with her professor, and I would love to know what that professor thinks now. It is easy to judge from so many different angles. It makes me wonder what I am "non-judgmentally" judging without knowing it. I loved that it was a well told story but also opened my eyes to a whole new world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.