Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Glass Castle

Book: The Glass Castle
Author:Jeannette Walls
Edition:eBook on Overdrive from the Fresno County Public Library
Read: July 14, 2015
464 pages
Genre:   Biography
Rated: 3 1/2  out of 5

Jeannette Walls is a gossip columnist in New York. This book tells of her and her siblings childhood as they grow to maturity, escaping the turmoil of two dysfunctional parents. She starts with an incident where her mother let her cook her  own hot dogs on a gas burner at the age of three, catching herself on fire. She then talks about life as a nomadic desert person, mostly around Arizona and Nevada. Her junior high and high school years were spent spent in a shack in Welch, West Virginia, before escaping from her parents to New York City.

What would it take for an adult child to be embarrassed by ones parents? In Walls case it was a chance sighting of her mother shifting through garbage looking for something to eat. Later on in the book, but before this incident, Walls has a friend who comments that all the homeless are scam artists. Later on a professor gives a liberal interpretation that the homeless are as a result of economics. Walls does not raise her own experience in either case. Walls raises several questions with this story, some intentional, some unintentional. Such as why is Walls embarrassed? Why do we have so much useful stuff in our garbage? Can a child ever be properly embarrassed by parents? How did the mother get this way? (With the father, there is ample reason why.)  Would a person look down on another because of their parents?

The Walls starts right off with an incident where she was severely burnt while cooking hot dogs as a three year old. Why was a three year old cooking hot dogs? The mother says that Jeannette was mature enough to do it. Here we start learning the character of the father-loving, caring, egotistical, distrustful of institutions and authority, such as hospitals and doctors. Rather than work within the framework of society, he abducts Jeannette from the hospital and takes the whole family away from the situation.

Rex Walls, Jeannette Walls' father is intelligent, creative man. But as we find out late in the book, his example was his mother was a heavy, uncaring drinker. Rex Walls tried to get away from but ended up with the same destructive drinking habits. Evidently this behavior started after the death of his second child.  You wonder what life was like in the Walls family before this death.  How far away can a person roam from their upbringing? He also rebelled against authority. His solution was to not have things of value and leave whenever he was to be held accountable for his actions and debts.  He would call this skedaddling. He did this almost where ever he went, except back to his home town of Welch, West Virginia.  The plus side is that Jeannette saw a great deal of the country which most people never see, she was able to experience a lot of the desert country.

But that is not the only side of him. When Jeannette is hurt, he is the one who cares for her. When she suffers from discouragement, he is the one who tries to show her she has strength. When Jeannette is $1,000 short on her tuition, he goes out for a week, plays poker and wins almost all of the difference. This is a man who loves his daughter, but has deficiency of character to be able in a relationship with her.  Rex Walls is not a single demented villain but a man who has a lot of weakness, but a lot of strength as well. Also when they went to Welch and stayed with her Grandmother, Jeannette saw a side to her father's family which helped explain some of her father's behavior. She would wonder if her was molested by his own mother.

At one point Rex Walls says that Jeannette is his favorite child. He would not know what to do if she lost her faith in him. Like a young child she promises never to do that. This raises a whole boatload full of questions.  Such as was he someone whom a young child should have faith in? Faith to do what? I think one of the prerequisites of faith is the person whom you have faith has to have integrity of character. A person may have faith that a person will act in a certain way, but if that way is evil, then what. As an aside, that is why it is so important to get your God right.

And what is Rose Mary Walls, the mother, like?  Jeannette Walls says it well: Mom liked to encourage self-sufficiency in all living creates [even her own children]. .... Mom also believed in letting nature takes its course.  But in a lot of ways, the children were more necessitates to be burden with than humans to love. She avoided responsibility, such as working, feeding the family, cleaning house, ... They blocked her from her writing, from her painting, from her getting that adrenaline rush of adventure. It is telling that when the children found a diamond ring, the choice she made was to keep the diamond ring to improve her self-esteem rather than sell it and get food for the children and fix the house they were living in. Or even worse, she had land in Texas which she inherited. When her brother died, she wanted to buy his land of the same size and location. The price tag? $1,000,000. How much family suffering could have been avoided by selling or living there?

It is that sense of adventure I think is what made the family both work and being dysfunctional. the sense of what is going to come next was both both looked for and was terrifying to them. In about a 3 years span Jeannette Walls figured they had moved at least 11 times, and probably more. When the children was not being feed, Jeannette broke one of the unwritten rules: pretending life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

The title of the book is from a set of plans which Rex Walls created to build a self-contained glass house in the middle of the desert. He called it The Glass Castle. This was his dream, his lure. The plans were self-created by Rex Walls. They were also a lure for the children. He fired their imagination with it. He would gamble, prospect for gold, take odd jobs to try to make this happen. But drink always defeated these plans. The question is, would he have ever worked on the building if he had not had the drinking problem? Or would his sense of irresponsibility take over and defeat him?

There did come the day when The Glass Castle dreams would not hold the children and they understood they needed to escape. As the oldest daughter became a senior in high school, she and Jeannette worked out a scheme to allow her to go to New York City and, live and finish high school. That they were able to do this was amazing, it shows the intelligence of the family. They were able to work out the finances and living arrangements.Shortly afterwards Jeannette followed the same pattern and was able to work her self through high school and college.

When they first moved to Welch, WV, Jeannette was enrolled in school. Because she could not understand the Southern accent and the principal could not understand her a western accent, the conclusion was Jeannette and her brother were slow learners. Lesson: do not mistake differences in speech for lack of intelligence.

There is a comment that like her Dad, her Mom had an addiction: reading and adventure. She describes the togetherness her family felt reading together. Also later on she says she is also addicted to excitement.

Hunger was Walls constant companion. Many times she writes about rooting through dumpsters, garbage cans and the like to have something to eat. Sad this became the normal for her. Also it appeared that while not really accepting it, she was not repulsed by it. It was survival. She had been raised with it. Also as a side note, you wonder how much garbage we throw away which is edible?

The moving part of this story of is when the author leaves Welch. The father tries to convince her that she should stay, there is a mixture of not wanting to see his daughter leave him, knowing that it would be a long time, if ever before they are reunited. Another part is that she was someone who he shared his dreams with-no longer would this dream be there. Lastly, his ability to control her would be crushed. On the other hand, her mom thought too sentimental for her to wake up in the morning to see her off. How sad.

Her last chapter, Thanksgiving, I would rather have had it left out. She is trying to draw the book to a close with having the family coming together, no longer dysfunctional, remembering the father who passed five years before. The salute being "Rex was not boring". But the end seems a bit contrived. While the end of the previous chapter where she sees the planet Venus and her father giving it to her is much more powerful to me.

Could this book have been written while her father was alive? How would he react? How much hurt?

I started getting interested in this book through Jeanette Wall's sequel, Half Broke Horses. (review being written)  It seems like there was much which Walls left out of that book, which might be in Glass Castle. While the statement is true, the family stories are different.

The first thing which you become aware of is that Jeannette Walls' family is Dysfunctional and that is with a capital D. Walls father is a parasite and her mother runs away from any responsibility. If the story was just those, it would be a ho-hum biography, which would leave you wondering why do I want to read this. The prose are good standard writing, they are not memorable; the story is.

What you do find out is that both parents are highly intelligent and creative in different ways. The parent's family history is one which directs their adult lives, not because they have control over the parents lives, but because of revolt the father and mother have against their upbringing and authority. Now each find themselves trapped by this revolt. The victims? The children.

Walls runs through this biography of her young life and her parents in a mostly non-judgmental way-one can never escape judgement totally, especially of ones parents. This is a book which gets you thinking about upbringing and its effects, homelessness, creativity and how intelligence is used.


New Words:
  • Caryatid  (339): female figures serving as supports. The most likely derivation of their name is from the young women of Sparta who danced every year in honour of Artemis Karyatis
  • Caprice (441): a sudden and unaccountable change of mood or behavior.
Book References:
  • Black Beauty
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder stories
  • We Were There series 
  • Zane Grey
  • Oz stories
  • Charles Dickens
  • William Faulkner
  • Henry miller
  • Pearl Buck
  • James Michner
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Lord of the Flies
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • Francie Nolan

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.
  • Last Line: A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.
  •  Once you'd resolve to go, there was nothing to it at all. (368)
Table of Contents:
  • Part I: A Woman on the Street
  • Part II: The Desert
  • Part III:  Welch
  • Part IV:New York City
  • Part V:Thanksgiving


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