Monday, December 11, 2006

Book Review: The Glass Castle

That Jeannette Walls grew up to become an accomplished, competent adult is amazing. That she loves her parents is extraordinary.

Ms. Walls is a contributor to MSNBC and writes regularly about the lives and secrets of celebrities. She is beautiful, articulate, and eloquent. The Glass Castle is a memoir of her life from her earliest memory to shortly after the death of her father.

The book opens with Jeannette living on Park Avenue with her husband. She is on her way to a party and is worried that she is overdressed. Stuck in traffic, she looks out of the window of her taxi and sees her mother rooting in the dumpsters nearby. Worried that her mother might see her and call out her name, Jeannette returns home. Later, she contacts her mother and they meet for lunch at a restaurant. Jeannette confesses that she saw her mother picking through the trash.

"'Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It's my way of recycling.' She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. 'Why didn't you say hello?'

"'I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid.'

"Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. 'You see?' she said. 'Right there. That's exactly what I'm saying. You're way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.'

"'And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?'

"'Just tell the truth,' Mom said. 'That's simple enough.'"

And so Jeannette does. Her first memory is her dress catching on fire while she's cooking hot dogs. She is three years old. When the nurses ask why she was cooking, Jeannette explains that she was hungry. Besides, "Mom says I'm mature for my age."

Rex Walls is a brilliant man. He reads books on mathematics for fun. He loves to invent things. He can fix just about anything. He can talk himself into being hired for just about any job. Keeping those jobs, though, is a bit of a problem. As is alcohol.

Rose Mary Walls is a "creative" person. She draws, paints, sculpts, writes. She doesn't drink anything stronger than tea. Her particular addictions are chocolate and excitement. And she's not above creating some when life gets too predictable.

Rex is building "The Prospector," a device that sounds an awful lot like the sluiceboxes the 49'ers used in California. Once perfected, the Walls family will be rolling in gold nuggets and Rex is going to build "The Glass Castle": a mansion made completely out of glass, in the desert that they love.

Rose Mary believes that people worry too much about their children, so she ignores them when they cry. They have to be tough and independent. Rose Mary also makes statements like "It's time I did something for myself... It's time I started living my life for me." She makes those statements in California, in Phoenix, and in West Viriginia.

Neither Rex nor Rose Mary seem to realize they are responsible for the welfare of four children. Electricity is a sometime thing, as is indoor plumbing. Food is erratic--sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. When the bills pile up too high or Rex has gotten into one too many arguments with the locals, they "skedaddle," leaving most of their belongings behind.

And, yet, they love their children. They read Shakespeare and study the stars. They encourage their children to dream, that the material doesn't matter. Rose Mary is Catholic and the children go to Mass every Sunday, but she also tells them that everyone must come to religion in their own way.

That I didn't see Rex and Rose Mary as monsters is due entirely to the way Jeannette tells her story. We see her parents as she saw them then; only as she grows older does she realize that something is very wrong with her family's way of living. And she is determined to leave.

After I read The Glass Castle, I googled Jeannette Walls to find out more--what her mother and siblings think about the book, what the reaction has been, any other thoughts or insights she's had about her parents' behavior. I recommend that readers do the same after they've read the book.

This book was a fascinating and frustrating read. I wonder if Jeannette and her siblings would have been better off had they been removed from the family. I don't see Rex or Rose Mary as changing their behavior, although Rex might have attempted to kidnap his children back. Because their parents were pretty ineffective parents in the traditional sense, the children learned to rely on themselves and on each other from a very early age. Had they been put into foster care, they would have missed out on that. But what a price they had to pay!

On the March Hare Scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks