Saturday, January 8, 2011

"The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls

A few years ago I bought Sue this book for Christmas, intending to read it myself at a later date. That was in 2006. Last week I was at the Mooresville Town Library, I can usually be found there several times a week, pouring through the biographies on the rear shelves, and something seemed familiar about the first few pages, I could have sworn that I had read them before. And I had. When picking a book to read,I generally go by the cover, and if I like it I read the first page. If I turn the page to keep reading I assume that I have found a book which I will enjoy. It's a pretty good system that works well for me.

Upon arriving at home I told Sue all about this wonderful book and how it began. She gave me one of those wifely looks that roughly translates into, "What kind of idiot did I actually marry?" It was then that she informed me that we already own this book, and moreover, that I had purchased it. What can I say? When she's right, she's right.

This is a gem of a book. A memoir written out of the pain that comes from being raised in a dysfunctional family. And boy, was this family ever dysfunctional!

The book opens with Ms. Walls in New York City. She is standing outside of her building waiting for the doorman to hail a taxi for her when she sees a woman rummaging through a trash bin. It was her mother. Just how she got there, and how the author dealt with growing up with such unusual parents, is the crux of this beautifully written, no holds barred book.

The authors parents were exceptional people, there is no doubt about that. They teach their chidren to do math in binary numbers prior to 1st grade. They learn to read all the classics before they turn 10. They are children blessed with astute minds and a thirst for learning. They are also burdened with two of the strangest parents one could ever hope to conjure up.

Ms. Walls mother was an aspiring artist who would stop the car in the middle of the desert to paint a Joshua tree. The house was filled with flies because she felt that the chemicals in bug sprays were more dangerous than the flies themselves. This was previous to Rachel Carlson's "Silent Spring."

Mr. Walls was a mechanical genius, always on the verge of inventing something that would pull the family out of the poverty they lived in. His theories were all correct, and would be proven by others, with time and money that he himself would never possess. He was also a hopeless alcoholic.

Bouncing around from the deserts of Arizona to the hills of West Viginia, the family experiences many different hardships. Hunger was a constant companion. There was never any real Christmas holiday celebrated in the usual fashion. The children were almost feral in their lifestyles, roaming wherever they pleased, encouraged by both their mother and father.

The most striking thing about this book is the lack of shame, or even anger towards her parents, that the author feels about her unusual beginnings. This is no "poor me" book. Instead it is an exploration about what happens to the children of those adults, who are too busy fighting their own demons, to be "normal" parents. No matter how strange they may have been, they gave this author the "grit" that she would need to survive. That the author manages to find her own voice, and create a productive life, is a tribute to both her, as well as her parents.

A striking read that was in my house for the last 3 years, or so, and I had to get it from the library! I'm sure to hear from Sue on this one...

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