Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Glass Castle

Ever since I was a child, I immersed myself in stories about people who rose above harsh and seemingly hopeless circumstances. Books such as The Contender and Manchild in the Promised Land drew my attention. With determination, spirit, and hard work, I realized, you could rise out of the worst possible environment, and do something constructive with your life. Such is the case, also, with the book I recently finished, The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls. The author tells the story of her young life, one that was filled with adventure along with poverty and parental neglect. At the beginning of the book, Jeannette, age three, is cooking hot dogs and is burned so severely that she needs hospitalization and a skin graft. While recovering, her father grabs her from the "sterile" hospital so that she'll be "safe" at home. This is a telling way to start her memoir. Although Jeannette Walls portrays her parents not with bitterness but with compassion, readers cannot help but judge their "fitness" as parents. On the one hand, the children learned self-reliance and coping skills; on the other hand, the parents didn't feed or clothe them or take care of them, and were often selfish and put their needs above those of their children. It's hard not to judge them, although Jeannette presents their good qualities, too, such as their resourcefulness and love of adventure. But the children, including Jeannette, paid a high price, and suffered tremendously. Unfed, Jeannette would find discarded food in the trash cans at school to assuage her hunger. Her parents were blazing nonconformists who barely managed to support their four children, who were often starving, cold, and dirty, and had to learn while very young to fend for themselves. Her mother was an artist and writer who didn't earn much money and her father, who showed brilliance at times, had a severe drinking problem--both took a great toll on the entire family. In fact, later in the book the parents, Rex and Rose Mary, both "excitement addicts", actually choose to be homeless and live on the streets, even though they could live in their Phoenix house, or sell land or possessions for cash. Odd choice. In this stranger-than-fiction story, Jeannette and her sisters, Lori and Maureen, and her brother, Brian, struggle not just to grow up in the usual sense, but also try to cope with a threadbare existence and two parents who are more interested in adventure than providing care or security for their children. Forever restless, they move to Phoenix, Arizona, then to Welch, West Virginia, and eventually to the city of opportunity, New York. A true survivor, Jeannette even manages to help the rest of her siblings. Jeannette Wall's honesty is incredible as she tells the painful yet fascinating and inspirational story of her past.

10 comments:

  1. Wow. I'm not sure I could read this book until the weather is sunny and warm. I'm afraid that reading this book would make me angry. If you'd like another book about overcoming struggles, one that has a real can-do kind of attitude, try "The Prize-winner of Defiance, Ohio: How my mother raised 10 kids on 25 words or less." It's heart-breaking and funny all at the same time.

    Thanks for your great book blog!

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  2. The book you mention is also a movie starring Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Laura Dern.

    As always, I appreciate your comment, Christie!

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  3. I read this book last winter. Although difficult to read sometimes (I would get so angry/heartbroken/stumbing in disbelief. . .)I truly believe it is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. Or at least the resiliency of some. I found it interesting that the youngest sister never became "independent" like the older ones. I've wondered if it was due to the fact that while they were in West Virginia she was cared for very often by others taking pity on her. Did she learn dependency? or suffer from the same crazy disposition of her parents? Anyway. A truly impactful, insightful read. Thanks for posting on it.

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  4. The situation with the youngest sibling also left me dissatisfied and wondering.

    Thank you for you insightful comments, Flashlight Girl.
    May I call you F.G. or Flash for short? : )

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  5. I just finished this a week or two ago, haven't blogged about it yet, but I will. I have never been so FURIOUS through an entire book as I was throughout this one. The way those 'parents' treated those children made me so angry I could barely see straight. I'm amazed and in awe that Jeannette was able to turn out so well- a testament to her own strength and resiliency, certainly no thanks to her parents. While what they did may have taught her survival skills, they were lousy excuses for parents and situations like Jeannette's should never, ever be allowed to go on.

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  6. Stephanie, this book evoked strong reactions from many people who read it. After my son recommended it to me (he read it for a humanities class) I went on amazon to get a "feel for" the book and also to order it; many people expressed shock at the Walls' childhood. What's really remarkable is that Jeanette has accomplished so much in spite of her difficult past, and that she has made peace with her parents.

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  7. I bought this years ago when one of my book clubs chose it, but I still haven't read it. I think that the "abuse" of the children, or at least their extreme poverty, has kept me from opening its pages. I can't bear to read of suffering very often, even though it's real.

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  8. Dolcebelleza, thanks for stopping by. Although this book is heartbreaking at times, it's also full of humor and hope. When I read your current review, it brought to mind this book because the kids are also left to fend for themselves.

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  9. I thought this book was amazing. It seemed to me that Jeannette's mother was mentally ill and her father was an alcoholic. I heard Jeannette speak last year and she's moved to Virginia and her mother lives in a trailer on her property now.

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  10. Bermudaonion, it must have been very interesting to hear Jeannette speak. I found it fascinating that she made her own braces. She certainly is a gifted person. I'm glad her mother has a home now. Thanks for commenting on this "vintage" post!

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