Sunday, October 28, 2007

He Rides Again: The Outlaw Mythology of Jesse James and Salvatore Giuliano

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford by Ron Hansen (1983 - reissued First Harper Perennial, 2007) 304 pp.

The excellent film of the same name, released this fall, drew me to this wonderful book. The film's website is quite well done as well. In reading Ron Hansen's book, I cannot help but be struck by the similarities between the lives and fates of the American outlaw Jesse James (1847 - 1882) and the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano (1922 - 1950). In doing a bit of research on both men, I see that a similar observation was made in a Time article dated April 30, 1951 after the death of Giuliano. They had more in common than youth, beauty and a life of crime.

As a girl, my parents sometimes played a record (yes indeed, that ancient precursor to CDs) which sang of the exploits of Giuliano. The album cover featured various scenes from his life. I only had a vague interest in him then but this grew and became a sort of small obsession as an adult. I find that I am not alone in this mania. The powerful imagery and mythology of the outlaw lives on in books, film, song and life especially if the outlaw is favoured with cinematic good looks like my fellow countryman Giuliano (pictured to the left here above).

Although James' death is separated from Giuliano's birth by exactly 40 years and an ocean, both were famous outlaws and killers whose celebrity lives on to this day. Jesse James' reign began in the 1870s of Midwestern America and Giuliano in the early 1940s in Sicily.

Handsome and vain, heroic and ruthlessly devoted to their own mercenary and/or political causes, they were beloved by the people of the rural areas where they were raised (James in Missouri, Giuliano in the village of Montelepre in Western Sicily). Despite their many murders (seventeen for James versus almost 100 for Giuliano) and robberies, they were both equally known for their generosity to the poor and often referred to as sorts of Robin Hoods. Anecdotes, newspaper accounts, folk tales and songs abound about the good they did, the poor they assisted, and how dashing they were.

Ron Hansen's grandfather claimed that as a 13 year old boy, Jesse James had watered his horses near the family homestead in Iowa. I had heard similar stories growing up about a woman my mother knew who had claimed that she had danced with Giuliano (my mother was 15 when Giuliano was murdered in 1950, two years later she immigrated to Canada). He was to her, and still is I believe, a figure of glamour and mystery.

Mention the name Giuliano to any Sicilian or Mezzogiorno Italian with a sense of their own history and their eyes light up. He is not primarily remembered for his hand in the ruthless gunning down of a dozen or so Communist sympathizers (among them women and children) at la Portella della Ginestra in May 1947 (his role was murky and often contested by his defenders) but for his supposed gallantry, kindness and regard for the poor.

Their outlawry began with acts of rebellion against the state: James, as a teenager, engaged in guerrilla warfare against Union soldiers of the North during the American Civil War. Giuliano shot a carabiniero (military policeman) who had tried to arrest him for carrying food that was above the war rations that the Sicilian people were allotted during WWII. Rather than give himself up, Giuliano soon became an outlaw and a separatist agitating against the Italian government for independence from Italy. They were both proud, impoverished Southerners at war against perceived oppressors from the North.

The men had intense, highly charged relationships with family members. They weren't anti-social loners or people who survived easily without the support and love of those closest to them. Jesse, by many accounts, was a devoted husband to his wife Zerelda Mimms James (known as Zee) and a loving father to his two children Mary and Jesse. His brother Frank James, with whom he frequently feuded, was also in the James gang.

Although, he never married and was never definitively connected romantically to any woman, Giuliano was completely devoted to his parents and sisters who suffered a great deal under the heel of the Italian government. His cousin Gaspare Pisciotta, his first cousin and future executioner, was also a gang member.

According to Hansen's book, a book of fiction based on historical fact, Jesse James took delight in robbing Easterners during his numerous train robberies. Giuliano, too, was pleased to outwit and steal from the Northerners who had been summoned to tame and destroy the Sicilian rebel. Both often sent notes to the newspapers vehemently protesting their innocence.

They mingled with, and often charmed, complete strangers leaving them mischievous notes indicating that they had just spoken to a famous outlaw. Or they left notes on the bodies of those that they had killed with messages of warning about the consequences of treachery.
James challenged the detective Allan Pinkerton, whose mission it was to capture James, to a duel. Oddly this was often Giuliano's preferred mode of engagement when outraged by any representative of Italian authority who wished to capture him (or merely insult him).

They endured the constant persecution of their families. Giuliano's parents and sisters were incarcerated and harassed for years by the carabinieri while American law enforcement officials firebombed the home of Jesse James' mother and stepfather causing the death of James' nine year old step-brother and a serious injury to the hand of his mother who had to have it amputated.

Both men were murdered by close associates: James, by a gang member whom he had welcomed into his home and, Giuliano, by his cousin and fellow gang member. Their killers, respectively Bob Ford and Gaspare Pisciotta, suffered painful deaths in retribution for their treachery and their part in the assassinations. Ford was shot and killed in the bar that he owned in 1890; Pisciotta was poisoned in prison awaiting trial in 1954. As they say, live by the sword ...

Remarkably, even though both were acknowledged killers and criminals, their deaths were mourned nationally, almost hysterically. The assassins were villified and threatened until they too were murdered in retribution.

The men were each displayed and photographed in death like trophies on a wall by the authorities. Jesse's death portrait was posted in the newspapers. This film still from the film Salvatore Giuliano (1962) faithfully depicts the press photograph that was taken of the scene at Giuliano's death and the tumult of media attention it received.
The mothers and the reaction of the mothers to the deaths of their sons are oddly similar. The arrival of Zerelda Samuels, Jesse's mother, to view his murdered corpse and the arrival of Maria Giuliano elicit the same fear and grudging admiration. Their responses are almost feral, warrior like. Maria stoops to lick the blood of her murdered son from the dirt where he had lain. Zerelda, at six feet and 280 pounds, intimidates all with her presence and promises vegeance upon the murderer.

Idolized and venerated in death by the "common" people, they would come to name their children after both for generations to come. My cousin's nephew is graced with both names "Jesse" and "James". Today, meet a Giuliano and he is likely a Sicilian or Southerner with parents who can regale you with stories about his namesake.

I abhor violence and am mostly horrified by its depiction in all forms. The collective deeds of James and Giuliano, when itemized, sicken me as I read their biographies, and yet, and yet ... is it their youth (James was 35, Giuliano 27 when he died), or is their beauty, which makes me turn a blind eye, which draws me to them?

In the 1990s, the image of the bandit Giuliano kept creeping into my writing, mostly he would make a cameo appearance in short stories and later overtook me in a book length novel. While I was writing it, it did not immediately occur to me that I was so influenced by my interest in him that I likely named my daughter after him.

However, I very surely was.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Dove in the Hen House

I'm not sure what to make of the Dove soap product line's Campaign for Real Beauty. Click here for three short clips that are part of this campaign (Onslaught, Evolution and Amy). The above print ad is a separate ad for another commercial that is part of the campaign (which I love by the way).

On one hand, it is refreshing to see a company challenge (at least in an ad) the accepted notions of conventional beauty and the sometimes ridiculous extremes that women will go to, to achieve "beauty".

The clip Onslaught, shows a small girl, perhaps aged 8 with a close-up of her pretty, freckled face and then follows with a barrage of rapid fire messages that young girls are exposed to daily, by the hour even: fashion and beauty ads proliferate and then the video morphs into images of all the more radical things we do to change ourselves or stave off gravity and old age: a young girl loses weight, gains weight, loses weight (we all recognize the cycle). Then it switches to images of breast implants, cosmetic surgery, botox, liposuction, etc ...

Evolution, which caused such a commotion when it was first released (it was the winner of two Cannes Advertising Awards), shows a nondescript looking model without makeup being made up, styled and then photographically altered into a more "acceptable" definition of female beauty for an ad. The reaction to this ad was a mystery to me ... the average person doesn't know that models look radically different before stylists make them up or that magazines will alter the features of a model (making her neck longer, defining her cheekbones more, brightening her eyes)? I would never agree with these tactics but is it really that shocking?

Amy, which is the simplest and the cleverest of the ads, shows a young boy biking to his friend Amy 's house and then calling out to her repeatedly to come out (she doesn't). The tag line is "Amy can name twelve things wrong with her appearance. He can't name one." It's brilliant, not flashy and very smart.

I know I will sound like that blowhard Camille Paglia, lord help me, but I will suggest that women have more free will that is sometimes supposed. Yes, we all are susceptible to the feeling that we are not sufficiently pretty, could be taller, have better hair, nicer breasts, nicer legs, should be thinner, blah blah blah. I haven't met a single woman who did not express some dissatisfaction with her body.

And I do believe that Western women have a heightened sense of inferiority that does not exist in certain other parts of the world because of this "onslaught" of media and commercial hype. I, too, have read those surveys where women have claimed that they'd rather have cancer than to be fat. This sort of idiocy completely floors me at times.

You might argue that this is a direct result of the beauty industry or, at the very least, aggravated by the industry. Perhaps yes ... I do agree that this could be the case but why relinquish your control and will to those malignant forces? Why act as if we are so weak willed that we can't resist those forces?

This panic that many progressive women seem to experience at the idea of their little girls playing with Barbies or wanting to dress up in jewelery and heels or try on makeup out of curiosity when they are five ...

Now don't get me wrong, when my daughter wanted to banish Barbie from her stack of toys (and I quote directly from the mouth of the babe: "Look at it Daddy, it's hideous!" she exclaimed looking at all her unused Barbie paraphernalia which she had received as gifts and lay completely unused). I was secretly pleased that she was rejecting that skinny little such and such and her crazed manifestation of popular girl culture.

But all societies, in all parts of the world, have standards of beauty and beauty rituals - some more pernicious and dangerous than others - footbinding in the East and cutting off bits of one's toes to fit into your Manolo Blahniks in the West - are two particularly frightening ones that come to mind. Another would be the 19th c. practice of having surgeons remove the bottom two ribs so that women could lace their corsets more tightly. Yes, these are extremely disturbing and dangerous practices ...

But let's not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. It is, I believe, a human desire to wish to adorn oneself, to make oneself attractive to the opposite (or same) sex. Hey, a little lipstick never hurt anyone. And aren't our beloved daughters and girls are smarter than we are giving them credit for?

Whenever I get bent out of shape thinking I should ban something or other from my daughter J's life because it will harm her self-esteem as a girl I try and remember the tactics that Linda Carroll, Courtney Love's mom, a feminist and psychotherapist, used on Courtney when she was a young girl. She banned all dolls, dresses, and all feminine identified toys from her daughter's use. Consequently, by her own admission, Courtney grew up obsessed with same. Take a look at some of her videos and you'll see. This is Love's performance of her song Doll Parts. Apparently her house is filled with girls' toys: tea sets and dolls, etc ... Granted this is the least of her issues.

I think if you try and control a child's environment too much, you may inadvertently provoke the opposite reaction in her or him.

Oh yes, and lest we forget, the principal object of the Dove campaign is revenue generation not feminist enlightenment. The Dove line currently has eighteen or so different products with almost 100 s.k.u.s (stock keeping units) including the essential Leave-In Replenishing Mist and the Regenerating Night Beauty Body Lotion. The Dove pitch ain't just about keeping it natural with soap gals.

So, what is Dove's message? Be naturally beautiful without cosmetics and all these unnecessary products and procedures but if should you need a good moisturizer because you're concerned about your skin and the aging process ...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Worshipping at the shrine of her own heart

"Like all alcoholics, I worshiped at the shrine of my own heart."
Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker
by Susan Cheever (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

How does a young girl of privilege handle being the daughter of John Cheever, a tremendously successful but alcoholic father who was dubbed "the Chekhov of the suburbs"? Not very well it seems. The memoir revolves around Susan Cheever's addiction to alcohol and how it manifests itself in her life.

Susan Cheever has lead an interesting and varied life which she appears to give short shrift to. Is this the natural consequence of being the offspring of John Cheever? Or because she suffers from guilt regarding having lead a privileged life? The anecdotes are models of brevity and efficiency. In one way, she left me wanting more as a reader. On the other hand, is she avoiding the emotional meaning of certain unsettling incidents in her past?

She paints an idyllic early life in a 1950s New York suburbia with elegantly dressed guests of her parents drinking carefully prepared cocktails (indeed she starts the memoir with a recollection that her grandmother taught her how to make a dry martini as a young girl). This smoothly segues to first loves and an ivy league university crowd where drinking accompanies everything - fighting, fucking, living. She appears to have a photographic memory regarding what she drank with whom. Perhaps this is not unusual for a recovering alcoholic.

Here and at her family home people often drink to excess, fight, hurt themselves or each other and it passes unnoticed by most as a natural consequence of drinking. But her father's drinking drives away at least one wealthy suitor for Susan who beats a hasty retreat after being drunkenly driven home by the elder Cheever through Manhattan. John Cheever's alcoholic excesses are quietly and undramatically noted.

Although she went to the tony Brown University (she aspired to Harvard) she spends time in the South to help get the Southern black population signed up to vote in the mid 1960s. She is inspired by a friend, there at another juncture, who is murdered by a segregationist. Manipulated and exploited because of her youth and ignorance (and likely her liberal white guilt), she escapes back into her world of privilege after a few harrowing narrow escapes, where she marries the upper crust Robert.

Robert, too, likes his drink, often falling asleep at social gatherings (again unremarked on) and soon resorting to slapping around his new bride in their new home, a beautiful if fading mansion on the Hudson River that they inhabit at the largess of wealthy friends for a nominal fee. Here Cheever excels describing Beechwood, the Vanderlip mansion in Scarborough-on-Hudson, which then still held the beautiful attire and elegant possessions of its elderly mistress, now dead. This is Cheever's world and she knows it intimately sharing all its gorgeous if anachronistic glory replete with ballgowns, ghosts and decaying grandeur.

Painfully, Cheever acknowledges that "domestic violence" as a concept did not exist then. It was, as an older and wiser woman once commented to me, just seen as "life". It is telling, somehow, that she spends very little time talking about that violence.

Unhappy and restless, the couple eventually settles in Westchester county outside of New York and then to San Francisco. They are no longer the promising golden couple she feels but a couple of has beens: he, the unpublished writer, she, the resentful wife of a "failure" who is now compelled to work to keep them afloat financially. To her surprise she becomes, and enjoys, being a reporter. But as her interest in her job increases, her interest in her husband declines and she enters into the first of many affairs and marriages (three to be exact).

It is not until Susan is pregnant with her daughter Sarah that she gives up drinking. She talks candidly about the transformative power of that birth. This from a woman who said, almost inconceivably, when 9 months pregnant, I will never change a diaper but hire someone else to do it. It is a momentous year: Sarah is born, Susan's father dies, she changes her life somewhat in giving up alcohol for a time.

But the sobriety does not last even though her love for her child has given her a new focus - there is something painful and strange about this woman who at this time can sleep with three men simultaneously: her current husband, a past lover and a new lover ... does the alcohol smother the pain of this sort of dysfunction or merely loosen her inhibitions?

Cheever name drops subtly and effectively throughout: meeting the writer Robert Graves in France; her on-going love affair with left wing firebrand Warren Hinckle (who later becomes husband number 3) and writer Calvin Tomkins (husband number 2); sending a box of dog excrement to the writer William Styron because of his poor review of a book written by a friend; staying at Julia Child's house in France; dining with Didion and Dunne in L.A. after her first book is optioned by Hollywood; morning sickness at Les Deux Magots in Paris; interviewing Francis Ford Coppola; being edited by Nan Talese. It is enough to arouse your interest but not annoy.

There is an understated WASPy elegance (or is it a WASPy arrogance?) to her references: she expects you to know who Warren Hinckle is or what sort of literary history Les Deux Magots holds for readers. But I must say that I was riveted to the story to the every end.

Susan Cheever seems to have finally found peace (and God) at the end of a very long, very interesting road.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Janeophilia and such

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence (Hambledon & London, 2003) 294 pages

Of course I was eager to know which, if any, part of the film Becoming Jane which was released this spring, had any basis in reality. Not a great deal apparently ... although I loved both the film and this book which inspired it.

Initially in the book, there is a bit of a tedious recounting of Jane's ancestors, not particularly interesting or notorious, but of assistance when deciphering the various Austen relatives during Jane's lifetime.

Yes, we find, Jane's love interest in the film, Tom Lefroy, was a real person, the illustrious Thomas Langlois Lefroy (1776 - 1869), an Irish politician and judge, who eventually assumed the position of Chief Justice of Ireland. As an aspiring lawyer he initially moved in the same circles as Jane's extensive family. They met, there was an attraction, a flirtation, some suggestion that he might be more serious towards Jane.

There is also a lovely subplot in the film regarding the romance between Jane's brother Henry Austen and their first cousin, the beautiful, sophisticated Eliza de Feuillide. In the film, Jane seems mildly perturbed at this flirtation and eventual consummation between the cousins. In the historical account of the book, she is more aggressively opposed to the match as are all of the Austen family. But, subtly I feel, the passion between the two beautiful cousins serves as a catalyst for the romance for Tom and Jane in the film. The real Jane Austen wrote a great deal of juvenilia about Henry and Eliza such as this vignette here. And it didn't always end well (in Jane's fiction). This link gives a genealogy of the Austen family.

Tom Lefroy had a large dependent family for whom he was responsible and a great uncle, Benjamin Lefroy, who wanted grand things for Tom. Jane, was a particular favorite of Tom’s Aunt Anne Lefroy, who, though quite a bit older, forged a very close relationship with the twenty year old Jane.

The couple met during the Christmas season of 1796 and often attended balls together. He lent her his copy of Tom Jones, a book considered to be very provocative at the time (later Jane would use the surnames of many of the characters in Tom Jones in her own books according to Jon Spence).

Visits were exchanged at each other’s homes and this "whirlwind relationship" ended after a month with Jane expecting to receive an offer of marriage. He then disappeared from Jane's social circle without making an offer. It was said that he lacked the independent means to marry someone that the family might not have approved of. Jane has no means of her own and as she grew older became wholly dependent upon the largess of her wealthier brothers and the small but growing revenue from the publication of her books.

By the spring of 1797, Tom was engaged to Mary Paul, the sister of a college friend. He married in 1799 and had seven children. In the movie much is made of that fact that he had a daughter named Jane Christmas Lefroy but it is more likely the girl was named for his mother-in-law Jane Paul. When pressed in his old age, Lefroy only admitted to a "boyish love" for Jane Austen. So lovely as the daydream is, there was no scheme to elope to Scotland, no decision on the part of Jane to end their relationship for his sake. Aah but a girl can dream can't she?

With historical notes from

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A new place to go for your literary fix ...

Maria Scala, my new friend, whose blog can be read at August Avenue, has turned me on to a number of new literary vehicles ... We met through my blogging for Descant magazine where she sent me some wonderfully supportive messages regarding my blogs on Italo -Canadian identity and the process of writing.

Maria and I share many of the same interests and concerns: literature, ethnicity and motherhood (not necessarily in that order!). She was one of the inspirations for this blog and I greatly appreciate her insight and support.

Maria has recently become a Columns Editor for Literary Mama (auguri Maria!), a terrific website that covers both literary and maternal concerns. It has reviews, essays, columns, blogs, "essential reading", profiles, creative non-fiction, classes and workshops, etc ... I am now hooked and have signed on as a subscriber.

I am in the midst or preparing an essay for a conference that I will be attending on Italo-Canadian identity at McMaster University in November at the invitation of my friend Venera Fazio, co-editor of Sweet Lemons (an anthology of writing by writers of Sicilian descent), and Prof. Paolo Chirumbolo from McMaster University.

I will keep you posted regarding that event and hopefully I will not disgrace myself too much that day!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford written and directed by Andrew Dominik (2007)

This is not a traditional Western but (and this is not an original thought) an examination of celebrity: how it can destroy the celebrity himself and how it corrupts those that venerate celebrity.

Jesse James, although an outlaw, thief, and the outright murderer of seventeen men, is compellingly portrayed by Brad Pitt with unflatteringly dyed black hair and a stoney, unnerving stare worthy of the sociopath that Jesse James undoubtedly was. You can see why the Oklahoma-born Pitt would have an interest in James; although James was a Missouri native, his escapades led him into several states surrounding Missouri (Oklahoma included) and Pitt must have been regaled with his adventures in the same way as the children of my family were fed stories of the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano (1922 – 1950) when I was growing up in the 60s.

It's a complex portrayal that does not shy away from a picture of James as a paranoid and mean-spirited individual with a penchant for violence and mischief. But he was also reportedly a devoted family man, loving husband, the father of two and a respected citizen who lived under the alias Thomas Howard.

Robert (Bob) Ford, the younger brother of Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), a James gang member, is played convincingly by Casey Affleck. His pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself with the James brothers, Frank James (Sam Shepherd) then Jesse, make you cringe but it also elicits sympathy as well.

Ford was 19, starstruck and anxious to please his hero Jesse James, with whom he had been infatuated since his childhood. The members of the James gang which included Jesse's brother Frank James were the rock stars of the mid West in 19th c. America with children's books and magazines and songs about their "adventures" which mostly involved bank and train robberies. Ford easily falls under Jesse's charismatic spell and is taken under his wing, while other gang members merely deride and humiliate him.

But there is a price to pay. Jesse is suspicious and vindictive when riled. He is quick to strike if he fears a traitor is in his midst. Bob soon fears for his own life and the life of his brother Charley after he learns that a fellow gang member has been murdered by Jesse for suspected treachery. He resolves to kill Jesse before they are killed.

But even the assassination (and well known conclusion of the affair) is not the most interesting part of the film but what happens afterwards to Bob Ford and Jesse's celebrity. What struck me most about the aftermath was the similarity between the fates of Jesse James and the Sicilian bandit Giuliano in whom I have an abiding interest.

Both were folk heroes, thieves and murderers, of humble origin and favorably compared to the more well known Robin Hood figure of Anglo-Saxon lore, revered by the majority of the "common folk". They were betrayed by a close associate (James by a gang member, Giuliano by his cousin and fellow gang member) after years of pursuit and some collusion with the local law enforcement.

Their corpses were displayed to the authorities like wild game caught, resting on slabs of ice for inspection by all and sundry and then photographed before triumphant authorities and posted in newspapers and journals. They achieved a sort of super-nova status as celebrities in death. One in America in the 1880s and the other in Sicily and Europe in the mid 20th c. even though they were criminals and outlaws. People would go on to name their sons after Jesse and Salvatore for decades to come.

In the 1880s, Bob and Charley Ford go on to tour the local theatre circuit and reenact the murder of Jesse who was shot in the back in his own home (Charley plays Jesse in the productions). There's is an eerie, unexplained suggestion that Jesse wanted Bob to kill him, even bought him a beautiful nickel plated gun just prior to the murder. The incongruity or shame of the situation eventually ruins Charley who kills himself.

Bob dies a slower death, emotionally succumbing to the daily threats of those angered by Jesse's assassination, even though he achieves a measure of celebrity, or notoriety himself. Ford's fate is no better than Jesse James but with the difference that no one will ever name their children after Robert Ford or buy a photograph of his murdered corpse to venerate like a religious object after his death.

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.