Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Glass Castle: A Memoir By Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle: A Memoir;  by Jeannette Walls (© 2005 Jeannette Walls, Publisher - Scribner, 288 pages)

I went to a friend's house for dinner not long ago. We hadn't seen each other in almost two years, so there was a lot of catching up to do. We discussed our children, our jobs, but more importantly, what we were doing with our lives to bring us a spot of joy. Both of us discovered that we had joined book clubs since we had seen each other last. Before I left, she handed me a book that she had read a few months back. She had enjoyed it and thought I might too. I got a brief synopsis, then went home with smiles on my face from dinner with good friends  and the acquisition of a new book for my bedside table. The Glass Castle was that book. I think I read it in about 3 days.

The Glass Castle is a memoir from Jeannette Walls. The cover proclaims the book a New York Times Bestseller, and the back page remarks that it won a Christopher Award and a Books for a Better Life Award. While I can appreciate praise, I opened the book ready to make my own judgement of how good the book really was. I met Walls sliding down in the seat of a taxi, trying to remain unseen by her Mother, as she rifled through a dumpster. An interesting start. I read on.

From Walls' introduction in her elegant party attire and lavish apartment on Park Avenue in New York City, we are taken back  in time to her youth. Her first memory is from the age of three. She begins her tale casually describing an accident where she is badly burned while cooking hot dogs in her family's small trailer in Arizona. Her Mother manages to get a neighbour to drive them to hospital, where Jeannette spends the next six weeks recovering from the burns and subsequent skin grafts that were necessary to save her life. She is strangely calm and accepting of the trauma, almost relishing her stay in hospital where she gets regular meals, clean clothes and bedding, plus much attention from the doctors and nursing staff. While her family comes to visit her, her Father comes across as brash and un-trusting of the environment. After arguing with the doctors on yet another occasion, her father materializes one day to check Jeannette out "Rex Walls-style"; he clandestinely unhooks her from her sling, picks her up in his arms and runs pell-mell down the hallway and out the emergency doors to their idling car.

"You're safe now," he proclaims, but as I read on, the truth of that seems improbable.

Jeannette was one of four children of Rex Walls and Rose Mary. As the story continues we get to know the Walls family; Dad's drunken ranting, cussing and raving, Mom's obsession with painting and little else, and the four children that seem to be pretty much left to their own devices to fend for themselves. Money is always tight and often non-existent. Food is a luxury that is wolfed down for its scarcity. In the first dozen years of Walls' life travel is frequent, but usually in the form of a "skedaddle" where most everything is left behind, as they depart in the middle of the night.

The years are tough, but Walls weaves a story that does not ask for sympathy. While her father is a self-serving alcoholic, he loves his family and tries to install his values in the children. They often wear threadbare clothes and get teased for being skin-and-bones, but all of the kids boast high intelligent and polite manners. Cleanliness might not be held in regard, but knowledge is of the utmost importance. Walls demonstrates this when she recounts a Christmas where a lack of money translates to a bleak looking holiday. With a keen sense of ingenuity and pure love, Rex gives each of his children a star for Christmas. With the gift of the star, also comes all the knowledge about its attributes, that belies the intelligence that can be found within Walls' stormy Father. You cannot help but acquiesce the materialism that surrounds the holiday and indeed of the North American culture as a whole.

The abject poverty leads one to assume that the Walls children are all doomed to abysmal lives. The funny thing about it is, that the morals and strict adherence to a decent education, often found while wandering through the desert or tinkering with broken objects, does exactly the opposite. I remind myself that the story starts with Walls obviously being well off, and this is due in large part to her strength of character and perseverance. She paints a bleak history, but cannot truly lay anger on the table at almost any point. While her struggles are more than most could bear, she offers us glittering jewels of life in amongst the dreariness that threatens to wash away the whole family. There is much pain in the telling of the story, but when I turned the last page in the book, I also found much love that touched my heart. Again, I don't think that Walls is trying to hold up her life as an example of what not to do or what to do, but she manages to find life along the broken path. She makes you want to look at your own path and find your own inner beauty amongst the scar tissues that we all have. I finished the book, sad that it was over, but warmed by this woman who was honest and true to herself and her life, refusing to let any little thing get her down. She made me want to be a better person and then reminded me, that I am.

So yes, I think the book was worthy of being on the New York Times Bestseller list for over three years and would recommend it to anyone who isn't afraid to get dirty, throw rocks and have rocks thrown right back at you. The Glass Castle is a dream that we all reach for and Walls is generous in letting us see hers.

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