Monday, October 1, 2007

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Simon & Schuster, 2005) 288 pp.
I read this on the recommendation of my sis-in-law Julie. I am of two minds regarding this childhood memoir: sadness and repulsion on one hand in reading about the appalling upbringing of the author Jeannette Walls and just the tiniest shred of doubt that it all happened as depicted (which, oddly, I felt guilty thinking). Read the first chapter here. Walls' razor sharp recollections of events at three and four years of age, down to the sort of insults hurled at her mother by her father, struck me as oddly precise. But perhaps I am being overly cynical and critical here.

The Walls family lead a nomadic, dirt poor existence traveling from one Southwest desert town to another. Jeannette's first memory is of being scalded with boiling water while trying to cook hot dogs for herself at the age of three while her mother blithely painted in the next room. Most memories involve wild stories of injury, or near injury, due to their parents' lackadaisical care of the four children Lori, Jeannette, Brian and Maureen.

Her father Rex was a charismatic, technically brilliant, complicated man who drank too much and had frequent fits of violence mostly directed towards his wife Rose Mary, a sometime teacher and painter. He was unable, or unwilling, to hold down a job, probably both. Rose Mary painted and wrote; she was a self-described "excitement addict" who willingly acceded to most of Rex's wild schemes.

Completely broke and plagued by debt, eventually the Walls move to Welch, West Virginia, the mining town where Rex grew up. There are hints of the sexual abuse of Rex by his own mother which might explain his reluctance to return to Welch. His drinking accelerates and he takes to stealing the grocery money and disappearing for days. He even tries to pimp out Jeannette to a drunken miner with the blithe assertion that he knows that she will escape the situation unscathed.

Jeannette and her siblings fend for themselves as their parents don't believe in handouts or welfare or even the importance of running water, electricity and heating in their rat infested, ramshackle home. All four children suffer from the stigma of being one of the poorest, dirtiest, most bereft families in the desperately poor town of Welch going without food, scrounging the garbage at school for lunch, going without medical care, decent clothes or any kind of basic necessity.

At 13, Jeanette is determined to escape to New York and also to help her talented older sister, an artist, Lori escape as well. Rex achieves a new low when he steals the money from their collective piggy bank for a days long alcoholic binge then denies he has done so. The girls start saving again and eventually bring Brian and Maureen to New York as well. Some years later, their parents come to NYC as well only to become homeless eventually despite help from the kids, but inexplicably happy in the whole adventure.

While told in a compassionate, non-judgmental manner, which at times makes the blood boil reading it as a parent, there are rare moments of beauty and poetry such as when Rex tells Jeannette that for her Christmas present she should pick out a star from the sky (she chooses Venus). Or the grand plans that Rex has to build a glass castle (hence the title) for his family when he strikes it rich.

Walls, the one time gossip columnist of Scoop on, was, ironically, paid to ferret out dirt on celebrities while spending a great deal of her time concealing her own past. She has said that she has been heartened by the warm responses to her memoir - high time too - sounds like this woman could use a break.

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