Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Glass Castle

by Jeannette Walls

Started: 17 September 2007
Finished: 23 September 2007

"Thanks a lot Mom and Dad for the happy childhood! You've ruined any chances I ever had of becoming a famous author!"

So reads a favorite T-shirt which my children and I love.

Jeannette Walls joins the ranks of Dickens and many other beloved authors who owe their first foot in the door of the world of Literature to regaling their abysmal childhood.

What is it about the unhappy child, the child-survivor, the child-made-good against-all-odds that inspires us so?

The Glass Castle is the story of the Walls family: Rex and Rose Mary, and their four children, Lori, Jeannette, Brian and Maureen. Rex and Rose Mary were married in 1956, which happens to be the same year my parents were married; the make-up and order of children in their family also mirrors the order of my own birth family: girl, girl, boy, girl--even to the spacing of the years.

But there the similarities end. My father was an excellent provider, loving husband, good father, devout Catholic and always hard-working and sober. My mother was a devoted wife, dedicated mother, faithful Catholic and a home-maker extraordinaire, even if her heart wasn't in it so much for the Martha Stuart aspect of it as to make sure she kept a clean home, provided us with nutritious meals and clean clothes. My parents considered our education a priority and ensured we attended the best private or public schools they could afford--up to and including four years of college.

Contrast this with the Walls' family and you have a difference so marked as to make me get down on my knees and thank God for my parents. And yet, Jeannette Walls today is a famous author and winner of numerous awards for this tale of courage in the face of overwhelming adversities. Would I trade places with her? Not for a second!

Beginning with her earliest memory of being severely burned when she caught herself on fire while cooking her own hot dog at age three, Jeannette relates her family's unique saga which is travelogue, adventure and a series of believe-it-or-not vignettes. Many times throughout my reading of The Glass Castle I found myself wishing parts of the narrative were not true, as one small happiness or gain after another was crushed, mutilated and/or eliminated. The family sank further and further into poverty and degradation as the children grew up and became aware of all the world around them had to offer...and which was denied to them.

I suppose my reaction says more about me than the book. Rose Mary Walls would have blithely dismissed my compassion and concern with a wave of her hand, "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger," and gone back to her painting. That was the sort of mother she was--a self-professed "excitement-addict".

Rex Walls was an alcoholic, four pack a day smoker, who led--or drove--himself and his family from one place (home?) to another all through Jeannette's early childhood until they were finally forced to return to his hometown of Welch, West Virginia. But from another perspective, he was also a misunderstood genius who, when he was sober, taught his children physics, geology, philosophy (of sorts) and a love of life.

The four Walls children grew up fast--as children of such parents must if they are to survive. They learned to take charge of their own fates and get what they needed. Perhaps it is the secret of their later successes.

The Glass Castle is ironic in that a castle is supposed to provide protection, whereas -- as anyone knows -- glass is both see through and easily shattered, a metaphor for the family life Rex and Rose Mary built for their four children, who joined together to work hard and help each other escape their own parents.

My own beloved parents just celebrated their fifty-first wedding anniversary this month. Although our family is far from perfect, it is rich in humor, wisdom, stories and trust. Thank you Mom and Dad for building our family on the solid foundations of Faith, Hope and Love!

This book was loaned to me by a friend and I am grateful, but it's worth mentioning this is a book you wouldn't regret buying. Had it been my copy, I'm sure it would be heavily highlighted by now. As it is, I have it annotated with numerous post-it© tabs which I'll go back and glance at one more time before I remove them and return the book (sniff) reluctantly to its owner. It was a DEAR book. (See previous Blog entry.) It was also a dear book from a dear person! Thank you!


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