The Glass Castle had been on my stack of post-surgery reading, and when I found out that my college’s Seattle-based alumni book group had chosen it for their September read, it was obviously time to read it. What follows, then, is what I would bring to the discussion were I in Seattle and so inclined to attend an alumni book group.
TGC is Jeannette Walls’s memoir of her childhood, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes as markedly Dickensian. Jeannette, her parents, three siblings, and several pets have a nomadic existence, remaining in one place only until they completely exhaust their meager resources slash are in danger of being hunted down by various legal organizations. Walls is an excellent writer with a remarkable story. I was turning pages almost faster than I could read them, but was almost constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
TGC is the second book I’ve read recently on a destitute childhood, the first being Ellen Foster. Despite the fact that Jeannette’s parents love her and Ellen’s are either dead or awful, Ellen still left me feeling more optimistic. Ellen was a plucky kid who knew she was in a tight spot and did everything in her power to escape it—and was ultimately successful. The child Jeannette (though now a happy and successful adult) doesn’t seem to realize that her living circumstances are abnormal, even atrocious.
She has—for the most part—a happy family with a sense of adventure. When she lights herself on fire cooking hot dogs at the age of three, the lessons her parents teach her are to be stronger than any threat, to not let fear overtake her, and not to trust doctors. The scary thing is that, with the exception of the last one, I agree with that! But I don’t agree with a toddler lighting themselves on fire because they have to prepare food for themselves! Gah. Stress.
The Walls parents are brilliant. They teach Jeannette and her siblings literature, math, philosophy, physics, astronomy, and logic (Jeannette later attended Barnard with a four-year scholarship). Their logic on life generally makes sense, as I mentioned above. It’s just when you put it into practice and add alcoholism, shirked responsibilities, and a great deal of paranoia, this logic devolves into a state that leaves me (the reader) screaming, “How could this happen to someone? And how did she ever get where she is now?” Jeannette Walls teaches us that rotted meat and rusty nails are no barrier to being awesome and brilliant and alive, and that’s a lesson worth learning.
The happy family dream begins to fall apart when Jeannette is in her early teens. The hunger, pain, and helplessness is no longer a fun adventure. Plus, her dad’s drinking gets much worse, as does her mom’s denial of reality. Through a series of miracles, the Walls children find their way to New York City, just like the scrappy, experience-hardened kids they are.
TGC will make you question pretty much everything in your own upbringing and, probably, your whole life. The Walls parents just seem so great at times! I loved when Jeannette makes her own braces/headgear out of a rubber band, a coat hanger, and a Maxi pad. How cool is that? But inevitably, Mr. Walls can’t get a job, a relative dies, CPS comes knocking, the kitchen roof caves in, and rats eat all their food, and then the Walls are on the road again. It’s the story of a vicious cycle that kept me in constant anxiety because I couldn’t help thinking that if I ever fell into a life like that, I probably wouldn’t be able to get out. Yikes.