Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Source of Book: Borrowed from the Library

“No one expected you to amount to much. Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you worked hard.”

Jeannette Walls heard these words from her mother after she attained success as an adult. Her ability to work hard was the one quality lacking in her eccentric and incompetent parents. Despite their education and intelligence, and even some financial resources, they ended up living homeless in New York City.

I stumbled upon a mention of this book somewhere – I think on a blog – but I’m not completely sure, in connection with a discussion about helicopter parenting. As I have taken to doing the last few years, I jotted down the title and author on my “library list” for future reading. This ever-expanding list primarily contains books that I wouldn’t consider buying for myself, but would prefer to borrow from the library or a friend.

By the time Amanda brought this home for me, I had forgotten what it was about and why it was on the list. However, once I started reading, I had difficulty putting it down. This finally culminated in yet another late night (and early morning if truth be told) spent reading and a groggy day bolstered by coffee. I guess some drag into class or work hung over on ethanol. Books do it for me.

Jeannette Walls was a gossip columnist living in New York State when her husband persuaded her to write about her childhood and family. Walls had essentially hidden this part of her history from the world, worried that revealing it would cost her friends, employment, and respect.

Imagine that Mr. Micawber (from David Copperfield) and Pappy (from Huckleberry Finn) combined their worst traits, but somehow retained a brilliant mind and heart capable of feeling when not completely dulled by alcohol. This would be a decent approximation of Walls’ father Rex. Her mother Rose Mary, on the other hand, drowned her disappointments and pain in her painting. In the middle were Walls and her three siblings.

Walls describes how the family lived as nomads in the California, Nevada, and Arizona deserts during her early childhood. Rex would get odd jobs here and there, but eventually got fired, and the family would flee their creditors to a new place. Later, lacking money and motivation, they settled in West Virginia and a life of crushing poverty. Rex drank away most of the money, and Rose Mary chased her dream of artistic freedom rather than submit to the indignity of employment. Rose Mary inherited some oil land in Texas, and supplement their small income with its royalties, but never determined the value of the land or attempted to sell it. She also stubbornly held on to an inherited house in Phoenix, refusing to either sell or rent it – or even live in it after they moved to West Virginia.

The kids had to fend for themselves. Walls was severely burned at age 3 while cooking. By that time, she could read, and prepare food for herself and the others, but failed to understand the dangers of wearing a tutu.

Not everything was bad, by any means. Walls’ treatment of the story has been described as “generous”, a word that fits perfectly. Walls does not sugar coat anything, but retains a remarkable ability to see the good along with the bad.

The title comes from a house that Rex was always intending to build for the family, if he ever got rich. A competent electrician and draftsman, he drew detailed plans. He also taught the children an amazing variety of things, enabling them to do well in school on the rare occasions they attended.

The early years, particularly, were an example of “free range parenting” combined with a home school style education. Unfortunately, Rex could not beat the alcohol, and things progressively went downhill for him in every way. The good that was there was gradually drowned.

While the story of Walls’ parents is a tragedy, the story of Walls herself and her siblings is much more positive. Their ability to rise above the circumstances forms a notable contrast with the corresponding inability present in the parents.

There are many things to like about this book. First, this is a fascinating story. Walls has a good memory, and a knack for storytelling. The reader is eager to discover what comes next: how bad can it get? Will Walls and her siblings find a way to survive each challenge? Walls does this, not with suspense and drama, but by good writing and superb pacing.

Another strong point of the book was the way that Walls writes each episode from her mind at the time it took place. Her early childhood memories are told with an adult’s command of the language, but with a child’s understanding. The reader is able to feel like a 3 year old, a 7 year old, a teenager, as the story progresses. Thus, the early impressions of her parents give way to the anger and frustration of a responsible young woman.

I also appreciated that Walls does not try to do too much with this book. She avoids the temptation to preach or indulge in political statement. She steers clear of attempting to explain her parents, or worse, psychoanalyze them. They, and the others in the book, remain recognizably human. The language is clear and direct, and best of all, invisible. It never gets in the way of the story.

All said, a worthwhile book, with better writing than I expected.

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