Monday, February 23, 2009

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

This is a remarkable memoir about the author’s experience of growing up in a deeply dysfunctional family. Much of her story comes as quite a shock since I grew up with parents who always took care of my needs. Jeannette’s family was anything but ordinary. The Glass Castle is the saga of the restless, eccentric Walls family, parented by a brilliant alcoholic father and a frustrated artistic mother.

Time and time again, the children were told in the middle of the night that it was time to ‘skedaddle”. In a few minutes they had to get into the car, sometimes being allowed to only take one possession, and leaving another small Southwest U.S. desert town behind. The sudden exit in the night often came after a stay of only a few months and was necessary in order to escape the debts her father had accumulated. Her mother’s paintings were tied on the roof and off they went, not knowing where they would end up.

Jeanette tells her story in a realistic and appealing style. She recounts many colorful conversations and details. She remembers the poverty, hunger, jokes, and bullying she and her sisters and brother endured in almost every community they moved to. At home with their parents, the children were left largely to their own devices and their mom told them they would learn from hardships and suffering. Their mother’s attitude toward keeping a house was that it just wasn’t worth her time. She could make a meal but it would be gone in a few minutes. But if she painted a picture, it would last forever. She was a free spirit and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family. So the children had to fend for themselves and often went hungry or took food out of garbage cans at school when no one was looking. They learned to feed, clothe, and protect each other.

Rex Walls, her troubled, brilliant father, had the ability to turn their downward-spiraling circumstances into adventures. His nickname for Jeannette was ‘Mountain Goat’, an appropriate name when you consider the rugged terrain of childhood that she had to climb. When he was sober, they were fed on the dreams of their father who taught them physics, geology and astronomy. As they grew older, they realized that his plans to build them a home he called the Glass Castle and to find gold that would make them rich, would never happen. It should be noted that there is some bad language when the father is quoted and there are also some unpleasant scenes.

In spite of this horrendous and difficult childhood, Jeannette tells her story candidly and with surprising affection. She and two of her siblings escape to New York when they are old enough and make a good life for themselves. What is most amazing is the resilience of the children and their success in overcoming huge odds. It’s a story well worth reading.

Jeannette Walls has survived poverty, fires, and near starvation to triumph. She has written this amazing tale with honesty and love.

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