"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

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Summary: A memoir of a childhood with non-structured, unemployed parents and how the author grew up.

The Glass Castle opens with the author, Jeannette, being burned by boiling water after she was cooking hot dogs on the stove at age three. Yes, 3! But she seemed so casual about what you and I would see as neglect that you don't panic yet. But the parental selfishness and idiocy just gets worse and worse. I kept reading because the writing is strong, descriptive and compelling.

Jeannette and her sisters and brother seem to have a wonderful bond, but it's also because their parents never acted like parents. Once, when the kids are starving, they catch their mother eating a chocolate bar, instead of spending money on food. When they confront her, she claims she has a chocolate addiction. It's funny if it wasn't so infuriating.  And the kids are starving more than once, but their mother refuses to work, instead camping out on the couch with a mountain of books (I'm not that bad) and working on her paintings, and their father is a flamboyant alcoholic with big dreams, excessive pride and no emotional strength.

When Jeannette is molested at night by a vagrant who wandered in their open, unlocked house, Jeannette and her brother Brian go on a Pervert Hunt by themselves, but don't catch the man. It leaves their youngest sister Maureen with nightmares for years and when Jeannette suggests that they close the doors and windows, her parents won't consider it.
"It was essential that we refuse to surrender to fear.
Mom and Dad liked to make a big point about never surrendering to fear or to prejudice or to the narrow-minded conformist sticks-in-the-mud who tried to tell everyone else what was proper." 
This understatement in no way prepares you for the treatment these kids receive at the hands of their parents.  I don't want to turn you off of the book, because it's a fascinating if disturbing memoir, but you will be appalled by her parents.
"Once, when an extra-big royalty check came in, Mom bought us a whole canned ham. We ate off it for days, cutting thick slices for sandwiches. Since we had no refrigerator, we left the ham on a kitchen shelf. After it had been there for about a week, I went to saw myself a slab at dinnertime and found it crawling with little white worms.
Mom was sitting on the sofa bed, eating the piece she'd cut. "Mom, that ham's full of maggots," I said.
"Don't be so picky," she told me. "Just slice off the maggoty parts. The inside's fine."
When their father raids their piggy-bank and steals their college fund, Jeannette finally becomes disillusioned with her father. It's an essential part of growing up - realizing that your parents are fallible humans who make mistakes and do the best they can. It hurts no matter what age it hapens at, but in the Walls' siblings case, it's more painful and more raw because they idealize their parents so much, and the parents choose their reclusive, bare life on purpose.

This reminds me of a modern-day Angela's Ashes. A mother who loves her husband more than her kids, a drunken father who expects to be adored without caring for his family and close siblings who grow up much too fast.

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