Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Glass Castle

A year ago for Christmas, my mother-in-law gave me this book. It looked intriguing but sat on the shelf for an entire year while I figured out how to fit reading into my life again after having a child. I finally read it over Christmas this year and found it fascinating. I, a very slow reader, read it in 4 days of nap-times and was sad when it ended.
The Glass Castle is a memoir - an astonishing true story about what I guess you'd call the "life adventures" of a girl raised by unique parents, and boy is that an understatement. The book begins jarringly with the author relating an experience of sitting in a taxi in New York City, on her way to a fancy party, and looking over to see her mother - a homeless person - rooting through the trash. I was intrigued and horrified from page one.
My husband likes to describe his own parents' parenting philosophy as "benign neglect." He tells all sorts of stories about he and his siblings fending for themselves, but they are nothing compared to what this woman and her siblings faced. Her non-conformist, drifter parents moved the four children from western desert mining town to town repeatedly while living in ridiculously tragic conditions. In one instance, right after the fourth child was born, the family moved and rented a u-haul truck. Since there was no room for the children up front, they all had to sit in the back with the furniture. Jeannette was in charge of holding the new baby in the dark in this truck for 14 hours - no food, no stops, no noise. Often they went without food, while their mother bought art supplies and their father bought alcohol.
When things got bad, the family headed east to West Virginia, where the father was from. Life did not improve for them. They lived in a house with no indoor plumbing, no working kitchen, no heat. The children slept in homemade bunkbeds with mattresses made of cardboard boxes. Jeannette's brother slept with a tarp over his head because the roof had caved in over him.
Interwoven through the chapters of this book are Jeannette's father's hopes and dreams and her mother's artistic visions. Her father was a visionary genius who planned to build a house for the family out of glass. When they moved to West Virginia, the children began to dig a hole on their property that would be the foundation for this great house, only to have it filled up with the family's trash, since they could not afford garbage service. Somehow, she creates an air of magic to her childhood. When there was no money for gifts, her father gave the children stars in the sky. They were voracious readers. They went demon-hunting in the desert to dispel childhood nightmares.
When you read this book, you wonder what century it took place in and marvel that it is a contemporary story, that Child Protective Services never took these children away, and frankly, that the children even survived. The book is told in a very unemotional, non-whiny way that is refreshing, and I think healing to the reader who is tramatized from time to time from the experiences she relates. It brings to light the conflict that many of us face when we grow up and realize our parents' imperfections. The amazing thing is, though, that no matter what we all have gone through, it is probably NOTHING compared to Jeannette Walls.


Lula O said...

It sounds like a really interesting memoir. I'm curious when it took place, recently? I prefer memoirs that teach yet remain unattached, if that makes any sense. Meaning, I'd still rather be a plump, slightly buised grape instead of a shriveled raisin after I've finished the book. Based on what you said, it sounds like the author does a good job of it here.

What an exotic, almost alien sort of life she must have led.

Ben and Christina said...

I'll give this one a try- thanks for the recommendation! And, I like that it was a relatively quick read:)

Danielle and Jason said...

The author is currently in her 40s I think, so this would have taken place in the 70s-80s, I think? And no, you don't feel sorry for her at the end, because she never felt sorry for herself.

Anonymous said...

The Glass Castle is one of my all-time favorite books. I had never heard of if until my monthly book club assigned it as the selection for January 2007. What a way to kick off the year! All the members of my family--husband and two sons in their 20s--have read the book at my insistence and it's one of their favorites, too. I agree with Danielle when she said that you're hooked from page one. It's absolutely true. A guy in my book club who hadn't started it yet asked me about it. I said that he would be completely hooked by the bottom of the first page. The next day he called me to say that he had started the book and, when he put it down the same evening, he was on pg. 125. I have seen Jeannette Walls on a news show and she's a LOVELY lady. You just can't stop staring at this beautiful woman and know that she survived such a traumatic childhood. I have also seen online posts from people who knew her in West Virginia and have verified that her book is a very accurate portrayal of the poverty and isolation that the Walls family lived in. So I guess you can tell that I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Thanks for the opportunity to rave about it! Sara in Richmond, Virginia.

Lula O said...

Thanks Sara! Stop by any time. You want to post your own review? Contact us, and we'll make you an author.

I'm definitely going to have to add this one to my ever growing list. Can one read over 100 books in one year? Hmm....doubtful.