Saturday, May 22, 2010

Book 15 – The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle came to my attention thanks to Kate’s review . I almost picked it up when looking for something to read at the airport (I ended up getting Shutter Island instead), but I’m glad I refrained since I found a cheap copy at my reliable neighbourhood thrift shop Chainon!

I wholeheartedly agree with Kate that this is an excellent memoir. “What I found most moving about this book was the fact that Walls was able to write so openly and honestly about such horrific events in her childhood, but in a way where she was not asking the reader for pity or sympathy. Her life just was what it was, and the events that she survived were heart wrenching, but also freeing and deeply moving.

Indeed. This is also the best memoir I’ve ever read only because it’s the ONLY memoir I’ve ever read. So I’ll have to be quite discerning if I’m going to read another one! Walls’ story about her family and childhood was compassionate and inspiring and it opened my eyes a little more about the resiliency of people, especially children. I can totally see how this book stayed on the NYT bestseller list for a hundred weeks.

The bulk of the book is about the author’s childhood, the first one-third comprised of when she was between 5 and 7 years old. There is some preternaturally precocious insight, which is likely due to projected hindsight. Which is why memoirs can be so suspicious. It can be difficult to immerse yourself in a self-proclaimed memoir because you suspect some measure of fabrication or embellishment. Or the author must have had a remarkably photographic memory for a child that age, as many of her recollections are quite detailed. In interviews, Walls’ admits she had many reminiscing sessions with her brother Brian, who has “a steel-trap memory”. She also reveals how she left details out of some events because her brother and mother remembered them differently, ie. petting the captive cheetah at the zoo. Since all her family members have read TGC (with the exception of her late father), I would wager that the events in Jeannette Walls life is as true as she could make it out to be.

I think if Olman were to read this, he’d quite admire Rex and Rose Mary “I’m such an excitement addict!” Walls, as they share uncannily similar world views, esp. opinions on parenting. Mama Walls always thought people worried about and fussed over their children too much, which only reinforced their negative behavior. In a sense, she was of the extreme laissez-faire style of parenting - to the point of serious neglect!

And Papa Walls had zero patience for "namby-pambies" - the kind of people who drive everywhere in air-conditioned cars or coddle their kids. He's the kinda dad who throws his own kid in the deep end of the pool and yells "it's either sink or swim, kiddo!". Instead of protecting his children from harm, he taught them to confront their fears on their own. When the Walls lived in Phoenix during summer, the parents insisted the windows and doors be kept open when they slept to let in the fresh air, even when drunks came in to molest 7 year old Jeannette in her bedroom at night! Instead of locking down the house, Rex took the kids out on a Pervert Hunt. Or Jeannette and her brother Brian resorted to chasing out the pedos with a baseball bat.

Despite some deep psychological scarring, the Walls children did grow up to be pretty tough and fearless individuals. They also got fed up with ransacking garbage bins at school, living in a rotting shack and having their alcoholic dad steal their escape money when he needed booze. When barely out of high school, the eldest child, Lori, escaped to New York City (she eventually became a successful illustrator of fantasy books and gameboards). Then when they were old enough, Jeannette and the remaining two siblings followed suit.

Trauma and scarring aside, there was still plenty of love and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Walls wrote her memoir as really a homage to her parents. Despite their atrocious parenting skills, they were intelligent, open-minded individuals. Rose Mary definitely thought outside the box. And Rex Walls was an almost brilliant, self-taught engineer. They in turn home-schooled all they knew to their children, and taught them a lot about life, things that you’d never learn at school.

We might enroll in school, but no always. Mom and Dad did more of our teaching. Mom had us all reading books without pictures by the time we were five, and Dad taught us math. He also taught us the things that were really important and useful, like how to tap out Morse code… He also showed us how to aim and fire his pistol, how to shoot Mom’s bow and arrows, and how to throw a knife by the blade so that it landed in the middle of a target with a satisfying thwock. By the time I was four, I was pretty good with Dad’s pistol, a big black six-shot revolver, and could hit five out of six bottles at thirty paces… It was fun. Dad said my sharpshooting would come in handy if the feds ever surrounded us.

In a way, the Walls children enabled their parents to also find themselves... when Mom and Dad followed their kids all the way to NYC! They promptly resorted to their old habits, eventually becoming homeless (Rex & Rose Mary lived on the street for two years) and ending up as activist-squatters. In contrast, this was right when Jeannette was living in a swank Park Ave. apartment and married to a safe and steadfast guy. Her parents always refused her offers of financial help, and they eventually found their own community of like-minded counterculture types. When it boiled down to it, Rex and Rose Mary had always stayed true to themselves and never compromised their values. After her father died, Jeannette finally found what was true within herself and this memoir gradually came out of that.

And what a wonderful memoir it was.

1 comment:

Kate W. Ladell said...

Finally catching up on reading your posts, Meezly! Great review (and thanks for the quote). Since you liked this one so much, I'm going to recommend my second-favorite memoir of all time: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. I promise that you won't be disappointed.