Monday, October 5, 2009
Book Review: The Glass Castle
Remember how you felt when you read Angela's Ashes? That's the way Jeannette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle makes you feel. You laugh, you cry, you shake your head in disbelief, and you thank God for what you have.
Jeannette is the second of four children belonging to Rose Mary and Rex Walls. Dad is a brilliant man who is convinced that all politicians are crooked, labor unions are a front for the mob, and the police are part of the gestapo. Therefore, the Walls family rarely lives in one place more than a year, because it doesn't take Rex long after getting a job to lose it, and whatever money he brings home is quickly spent on food and cigarettes and booze. Oh, and Mom's art supplies. Yes, she has a teaching degree, but she only got it to stop her mother from nagging at her, and really she just wants to be an artist. Not a teacher, not a secretary, just a free spirit. And really, not a mother either. Her philosophy of child rearing is that children need to learn to fend for themselves. That's why the book opens with three-year-old Jeannette boiling herself a hot dog and catching her belly on fire. Where was mom? Painting in the other room. When doctors and nurses in the ER questioned precocious little Jeannette about how her parents were caring for her, she said she often cooked her own hot dogs; they were easy to make.
The memoir is told in brief scenes, following the Walls family as they flit from one home to another, sometimes living in a house, but more often living in their car or a rundown shack. Once even an abandoned train depot.
And yet despite the appalling neglect the children face, Jeannette still loves her father. Even though he later cons her out of money and basically prostitutes her one evening, she dwells on all the things he taught her, all the ways he made her childhood magical.
She writes about the games her father played with neighborhood children, having so much fun that kids were more likely to ask if Mr. Walls would come out and play than any of his children. She writes about the Christmas they didn't have any money (ONE of the Christmases) when Rex took each of his children out one by one to sit under the desert stars and offered to give each of them whichever star they wanted. She writes about his brilliant architectural plans for the glass castle he vowed to build the family one day. And she writes.
Jeannette's stories about her mother are less forgiving. Rose Mary was a selfish woman who snuck bites at a King Size Hershey bar when her children had eaten nothing for dinner for two nights running. She sulked about getting a teaching job, complaining that she just wanted to do what SHE wanted to do, often staying in bed until her children roused her, dressed her, and sent her off to work. She didn't keep their house clean, didn't cook regularly, didn't tell their father no when he took the family's money to feed his habits.
The memoir spans the family's journey from the deserts of the Southwest, to California and Phoenix, to West Virginia, and then to New York City. Starting with Lori, the oldest, each of the children fled West Virginia one by one as they grew old enough to survive on their own. And despite their desperate beginnings, three of the four made wonderful lives for themselves as an artist, a writer, and a policeman.
Since finishing the book, I have found myself thinking about the relationship between parents and children. I wonder why a child would continue to love a parent who neglected her, who let her go hungry so often, who stole from her and lied to her and didn't care for her. I wonder about what creates and sustains love. And I have discovered (again) that all the things we think are essential (how many pairs of jeans? shoes? this new gadget or that one? camp and lessons?) really aren't. Now, I'm not saying I'm going to quit my job and toss my family into the van so we can drift across America. But I am saying that time is priceless and infinite, and it is the best gift we can give each other, especially our children. The poor have as many hours as the rich, and they are probably less miserly with their time than the people living in the comfy houses.
Just a thought.