Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle was a hugely popular best seller in the USA, and it must have been while I was gone. A part of me remembers reading a little bit about it and deciding it wasn’t my kind of book, but after reading Half Broke Horses, I had forgotten what the subject matter was and was excited to have another Jeannette Walls book I could read.

Big mistake. This book is nothing like Half Broke Horses.

Or maybe it is. Maybe what I loved about Half Broke Horses was the voice of an amazing woman, and maybe what kept me reading The Glass Castle is the voice of an amazing child who tells a heart breaking story. Or maybe it isn’t so heartbreaking, because the children survive. They are scarred and damaged, but never so damaged or loony or self-deceived as their parents.

I don’t like reading books about kids whose parents don’t take good care of them. Oprah chose a lot of those books in her book club. These books depress me. I cannot imagine how parents can be so self-absorbed, how they can take on the responsibilities of children and then not put those children first. How can they?

The Glass Castle stars the daughter of Lily Casey Smith, who is the mother of Jeannette Walls, and her husband, who is Jeannette’s father. The book opens with little three year old Jeannette proudly cooking up a hot dog. Her mother is busy painting and has told her to find something to eat. Her nightgown catches fire, and she is terribly burned. She spends a long time in the hospital, which ends with her father taking her out in a hurry, bundling her into the car, already loaded with her family, and “doing the skedaddle” which is leaving town just in front of the bill collectors.

This is her life. From time to time, their alcoholic Dad will take a job and bring home some of the paycheck (he drinks and gambles most of it) and when he won’t work, on rare occasion, their mother will take a teaching job, but the kids have to get her out of bed in the morning, have to grade her papers and make her lesson plans. Often there is not enough for the family to eat. They don’t stay in one place; they ‘skedaddle’ before they are evicted for non-payment of rent. They eat cold food – when they eat – because the parents didn’t pay the electric bill.

The Dad is smart, charming and cajoling, and when he is sober, the kids learn amazing things from him, and educated engineer. Unfortunately, he is not often sober. He chases after alcohol and he chases after women; the people in the towns where they live know it and the children learn to know it, too, to their constant humiliation. When he wheedles money off his kids, and promises to repay, he asks “Have I ever let you down?” The answer is so stunningly obvious as to be heartbreaking – Yes. Yes, again and again and again.

The Mother is equally irresponsible. One time, when the family is starving, she is in bed and occasionally goes under the covers, where Jeannette discovers her mother has a chocolate bar hidden that she can eat – while her children go hungry.

The author’s voice is never self pitying, she just lays it all out and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Each child escapes the family as soon as possible; the children plan and save their money to get out, first sending off the oldest sister, then Jeannette, then the son. They all head for New York, where they find work and support themselves. Like bad pennies, Mom and Dad show up in New York, cadge meals and money and join the ranks of the homeless in New York, going from food pantry to soup kitchen, and diving dumpsters for their worldly needs.

This is not a feel good novel. The good part about it is that children can survive this kind of criminal neglect, and become a successful author as Jeannette Walls has done. I am so glad I read Half Broke Horses first, because her grandmother is such an admirable character, whereas her parents are scum and I just felt so angry when I read the matter-of-fact descriptions of their behavior that I was glad they were not where I could get my hands on them.

I don’t know any parents as bad as Rose Mary and Rex Walls, but I know I believe this – if you choose to marry, and if you choose to have children, know that children require time, and love, and energy, and patience. Know that if you have grand ambitions, or an addiction, or a character flaw, you won’t be able to provide for your children’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs, unless you are willing to sacrifice your own needs and wants. While the children in the book loved their parents, they recognized that their parents were sadly lacking in the parenting roles. The way these children were neglected will make me remember this book for a long time.

Would I recommend it? Yes. It is a gripping book, at times even horrifyingly humorous, as when Jeannette figures out how to find lunch food in the garbage cans when all the other kids have finished eating. It is not a feel-good book. It is a horrifying indictment of self-absorbed, neglectful parents, parents you will love to hate.

If I sound a little overwrought, it’s because I worked with the homeless. We were able to help many, but I also ran into families like this family, families who would prefer not taking any help if it meant they had to play by the rules, you know, rules like “you have to take care of your children.” We had all kinds of classes and forums and mentors to help with learning skills, like feeding children well on a small budget, learning to discipline, simple skills, survival skills.

The problem is that these skills require self-discipline, and many of the parents would rather not take help than have to exercise self-discipline. I saw women who would sacrifice their children for their current boyfriend, a woman who was severely angry with her daughter for reporting a family member had molested her, a man who didn’t want to take a job that would ‘tie him down’ when his family was starving. I saw this, with my own eyes, and there is no way you can MAKE people take good care of their children. You have to ask if the children are better off with these parents, or ‘in the system.’ Not a pretty choice.

This book, too, is on Reading it is like watching a disaster on CNN. You don’t want to believe it is happening and you can’t look away.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Biography, Books, Character, Community, Family Issues, Financial Issues, Living Conditions, Road Trips, Social Issues, Values | , | 2 Comments