Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

(hb; 2005: memoir)

From the inside flap:

“Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideas and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an ‘excitement addict.’ Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

“Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town – and the family – Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.”

Review:

Walls’s account of her childhood – “rough” would be putting it lightly – is balanced and fair, considering the difficulties her parents put her and her siblings through. Her parents loved them, but they were casually negligent, in the way only people with seemingly unmanageable personal demons can be. When things got even more desperate – the children were eating the last stick of butter because that’s all the food that was left in the house – that negligence became unintentionally cruel (e.g., when one of Jeannette’s uncles tried to repeatedly molest her, her parents told Jeannette to shrug it off because if they raised a stink about it, they’d have no place to live).

The book spans approximately thirty years, from the Walls’ Midwest wanderings, to their below-trailer trash existence in West Virginia to Jeannette’s later New York affluence as a magazine writer. Through it all, Walls shows sympathy, shot through with anger, for her parents, who for all their faults, did love their children.

It ends on a kind, but realistic note, maintaining the desperate rueful humor that constantly buoys this potentially depressing work.

Wonderful book. By all means, check it out.

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