Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
304 pages
Published January 2006 by Simon and Schuster
Source: borrowed from a friend

Jeannette Walls, father, though brilliant and charismatic, was also an alcoholic who found it impossible to hold down a job.  Her mother was an artistic personality, who appears to have suffered from bipolar disorder and who had not the least compunction about supporting her family despite being educated as a teacher.  And yet these two people thought it would be a good idea to have children. 

When she was only three years old, Jeanette set herself on fire cooking hot dogs while her mother was painting a picture in the next room. It was par for the course in the Walls' household.  Rex and Rosemary Walls were so wrapped up in their own dreams that they often couldn't be bothered to take care of their children's needs or supervise them in any way.  They used the excuse that they were helping their children to become self-sufficient and Rosemary believed that children shouldn't be "burdened with too many rules and regulations." 

Remarkably, in some ways they were also very good parents in the children's younger years.  Rex taught them about physics, geology, and astronomy and made them believe in chasing your dreams.  Rosemary taught them art, reading and an appreciation for nature.  When Jeannette was young she became afraid one night that there was some sort of creature in her bedroom. Rex not only didn't try to tell her that her fears were not legitimate, he gave her the ability to fight them.  And, to some extent, the children bought into the idea that they were always on a great adventure, even when it meant they had to pull up stakes and leave town with nothing more than what would fit in their car. 

But as the children got older they began to realize how much harder their life was than it needed to be.  They started to question why their father should spend grocery money on alcohol and pie-in-the-sky schemes and why their mother should spend her days writing novels instead of working when they could not afford to heat their homes.  When Jeannette was just nine, Rosemary's mother died leaving them money, a furnished home and land in Texas.  Somehow Rex and Jeannette managed to squander it all and soon they were involving their children in bank scams and shop lifting. 

Eventually, the family was forced to head to West Virginia and the family that Rex had worked so hard to avoid for so many years.  With good reason.  Everyone in it was also an alcoholic and some of them were even pedophiles.  Things had been bad in California and Arizona; they were much worse in West Virginia.  The family became the laughingstock of the town, there was more often not no heat or electricity. The house leaked, it was falling apart and the children had to dig through the garbage after the other children had eaten at school to have food for lunch. When the children found a diamond ring on their property, Rosemary kept it for herself instead of selling it to pay bills or buy food.  When Rex needed he cash, he once used Jeannette as bait while he hustled a man, essentially pimping out his daughter.

No wonder then that all four of the children left home before they were out of high school.  Their parents followed them to New York where they continued to inflict emotional pain on their children.  When Jeannette was a grown adult, she discovered that what she had assumed was worthless land in Texas was actually quite valuable and that her mother had been holding out on them during all those years of poverty. 
"All those years in Welch with no food, no coal, no plumbing and Mom had been sitting on land worth a million dollars? Had all those years...been a caprice inflicted on us by Mom?"
It became harder and harder to read this book as it went on. As a person whose life has revolved around her children for more than 20 years, it is unfathomable to me that any two people could be so selfish, even given their demons. Walls does a marvelous job of portraying her parents as something more than just people who deprived their children for years; she has worked hard to find the motives behind their actions (or just as often inaction).  Rex was very proud of what his children became and he and Rosemary deserve their share of credit for the successes the their children have had.  They would certainly not be the people they are today had they been raised in any other way.  They are all bright, hardworking, contributing members of society despite having not had that example set for them. 
"One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree.  I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house.  I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

Mom frowned at me.  "You'd be destroying what makes it special," she said.  "It's the Joshua tree's struggle that give it it's beauty."

15 comments:

  1. Very nice review. My book club read this and had, as a whole, essentially the exact same reaction as you did!

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  2. What I remember most about this book is liking the short chapters.

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  3. I have this book on my shelf, and am afraid to pick it up because I think it would really anger me. I know that the author is really forgiving of her parents and that she doesn't hold any grudges, but I don't really know if I can say the same. Great review, by the way.

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  4. I had a very hard time reading this book (pre-blogging, for book club), but this is the post I would have written. Well done...

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  5. It's a tough book to read for a lot of reasons. It's amazing to me that the author didn't become bitter over the entire experience. Sometimes I think age plays a bigger role than you think. I know with my parents I remembered all the "not so glamourous" details of our nomadic life, but my sister blocked the entire 8 years out of her mind. She can't remember any of it.

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  6. Lisa, I can imagine how hard it must have been for you to read this. Not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination.

    I read this last year sometime, though it is not the sort of thing I normally read. Something about it made me break my rule. (I'm not one for harrowing memoirs.) Anyway, it is an amazing story of strength through incredible adversity. How these kids even survived as long as they did is a testimony to their inner strength and fortitude and intelligence. Not to mention: the vagaries of fate.

    I wanted those parents thrown in jail and the keys lost. What dreadful people! I don't like it so much when I get this angry reading a book. I am an artist myself and I remember, occasionally, while raising my own daughter, moments when I would get lost in my work and have to be dragged back to reality. But you know, this only took a few seconds - I was never that sunk in my own world that I would
    ignore the realities of motherhood.

    I just want to give Jeanette Walls the biggest hug.

    Jeez, this book make me mad. But I still recommend it for the superb, though ultimately heartbreaking, memoir that it is.

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  7. Are the children who they are today because of or inspite of how they were raised. They could have easily become what their parents were. I definitely wouldn't use their ideas of parenting...even if I knew my kid would turn out to be some genius. It makes me wonder if the kids, now as adults, have nightmares...or what other areas of their lives have been negatively effected. I don't know...I'm going to start this book really soon for my own book club. But this book brings up a lot about suffering and adversity. Lots of stuff to think about. Great review!

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  8. This book blew my mind. I don't know what was more stunning, the way the parents "raised" the kids or that the kids turned out to do as well as they did given the circumstances. But it is one of the best memoirs I have ever read.

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  9. Excellent review but not a book I will be reading anytime soon. Some themes are just too much for me to handle.

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  10. Like Ti, I'm amazed at the author's lack of bitterness. Had the book had a different tone (that "oh woe is me" tone), I wouldn't have liked it so much.

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  11. This book brings out soooo many emotions, and that is one of the reasons it was one of my favorite books ever. Top rated memoir. Hard to read, yes. Worthwhile? Absolutely! And proof that living a difficult life does not always doom one to failure. You did a fabulous job on this review of an excellent book!

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  12. I loved this book, and somehow I am drawn to books about dysfunctional families...weird I know.

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  13. My book club read this book. It was painful to read. It was a little to close to home for me having also been raised by a bi-polar mother and a disengaged father who were also fiscally irresponsible. If found it difficult to finish. But it was one of the best discussions we ever had. Excellent job of reviewing this challenging book.

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  14. Sounds like a difficult book, but it is nice to see that she came out of this childhood okay. Seems like there's a bit of hope amid all the depressing stuff.

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  15. This book sounds so thought-provoking. I didn't realize it was so... intense in content? Such selfish people really get no sympathy from me, yet I do want to read this one.

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