Tuesday, July 17, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "The Glass Castle"

The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
Copyright 2005
Scribner Publishing

If I ever, ever complain about my childhood again, just slap me upside the head.  The Glass Castle is the story of the childhood of author Jeannette Walls.  I would say I've never read such a story before, but I just read one that was strikingly similar to this in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (reviewed here).  In fact, that classic by Betty Smith is even mentioned in The Glass Castle.

Okay, so back to the book.  The story starts out by describing three-year-old Jeannette, standing up at the stove with a boiling pot cooking herself a hot dog because she is hungry and if she doesn't fix food herself, no one else will.  Jeannette's dress catches on fire and she ends up in the hospital for weeks on end.  Finally, her parents snatch her out of the hospital and take off.  Within a few days, Jeannette is back standing at a stove cooking herself a hot dog (because if she doesn't feed herself, no one else will).  This sets the tone for a story of a childhood filled with neglect, siblings who can only rely on each other, and parents who cannot face the responsibilities of parenthood.

The Walls family moves from desert town to desert town throughout Jeannette's young childhood.  Most of the time, not even staying long enough for the children to make any kind of life for themselves.  The usual excuse for the packing up and driving off in the middle of the night is that someone is after them, but it seems that instead of facing the daily problems of life, the parents always just want a clean slate.  The result of this transient lifestyle is that the children are faced with abject poverty and constant hunger, sleeping on cardboard, are never able to establish any roots, and know not to develop any close ties anywhere (there's even a terribly sad scene where, during one of these midnight runs, the father throws the family cat out the car window and leaves it behind). 

Jeannette's father is a drunk who is a dreamer, clever but lazy (he dreams of one day building a glass castle for his family).  Her mother is an artist who has some skills that could help the family survive but refuses to use them.  They seem to love their children with the very barest definition of the word, but have no compassion nor ability to put the children's needs ahead of their own.  As the children grow older and the family runs out of options, they end up returning to the father's hometown in West Virginia, an abysmal hole in the ground place where nothing good can come.  In a freezing cabin that pours down water on them whenever it rains, eating food from the garbage cans at school to survive, and protecting each other as best they can, these children show their strength and determination by eventually pulling themselves out of it and leaving their parents' world behind.

I think the most difficult thing about reading this book was seeing the two very able-bodied parents sit idly by while their children went hungry.  The worst of this for me was the scene where the four children haven't eaten anything substantial for days and the mother is caught sitting at the side of the room sneakily eating a candy bar.  Who would do that?  Surprisingly though, the author doesn't seem to resent her parents for raising her this way.  She describes them with affection and kindness and is only saddened by their shortcomings.

This book was both fascinating and horrifying, but it was extremely well-written.  I think of the things I went through as a child and they just don't even compare to what this family struggled through and survived.  Highly recommend this one for all readers.

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