It’s funny. Since I started my 52 in 52 project, friends, staff and neighbours have approached me and put forward their recommendations. There’s Wendy Beamish who, upon seeing me enter her classroom, placing The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us into my hands. Here’s Aaron Mueller strongly recommending The Eyre Affair. And here comes my neighbour, little 6-year-old Suzie, approaching me with her dad sarcastically smiling behind her; “Hey, Mr. Bondi, you should read Snuggle Bunny (I did and loved the hand puppet). Everybody is a reader!
This week I read Jeannette Wall’s, The Glass Castle. I’ve always found biographies to be
compelling – learning about how other people live, how they’ve coped with the vicissitudes of life. Walls, through her memoir, makes an excellent contribution to the genre.
The Glass Castle, chronicles the author’s upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents: Rose Mary, her frustrated-artist mother, and Rex, her brilliant, alcoholic father. Motivated by whims and paranoia, they are constantly on the move and the children (Jeannette, her brother, Brian and two sisters, Lori and Maureen) are left largely to their own devices. They suffer but mom says it’s ok:
Mom always said people worried too much about their children. Suffering when you are young is good for you, she said. It immunized your body and your soul.
Walls describes in fascinating detail what it was to be a child in this family, from the embarrassing (wearing shoes held together with safety pins; using markers to color her skin in an effort to camouflage holes in her pants) to the horrific (being told, after a creepy uncle pleasured himself in close proximity, that sexual assault is a crime of perception) and being unsuccessfully pimped by her father at a bar which produces this great line from Jeannette: One thing about whoring: It put a chicken on the table.
The memoir is divided into three parts. The first third follows the Walls family as they live on the West Coast frequently moving between desert towns. In a key scene, Jeannette and Brian, while playing with matches, accidentally set fire to an abandoned shack in the desert. Rescued by their father, Jeannette (her mom thought the extra ‘n’ looked “more French”) writes of what her father said:
[He] pointed to the top of the fire, where the snapping yellow flames dissolved into an invisible shimmery heat that made the desert beyond seem to waver, like a mirage. Dad told us that zone was known in physics as the boundary between turbulence and order. “It’s a place where no rules apply, or at least they haven’t figured ‘em out yet,” he said. “You all got a little too close to it today.”
The Walls family spends their life in this zone between turbulence and infrequent order and both the mother and the father are at ease with this reality:
“Things usually work out in the end.”
“What if they don’t?”
“That just means you haven’t come to the end yet.”
Despite the presence of an unemployed father and a creative, educated mother who refuses to work because she wants to be an artist, Jeannette and her siblings, being young
and knowing no better, feel loved despite living in poverty. They get their Christmas trees and toys from the side of the road after Christmas is over. But, there is beauty in this reality as touchingly retold by Walls:
I never believed in Santa Claus. None of us kids did. Mom and Dad refused to let us. They couldn’t afford expensive presents and they didn’t want us to think we weren’t as good as other kids who, on Christmas morning, found all sorts of fancy toys under the tree that were supposedly left by Santa Claus.
Dad had lost his job at the gypsum, and when Christmas came that year, we had no money at all. On Christmas Eve, Dad took each one of us kids out into the desert night one by one.
“Pick out your favorite star”, Dad said.
“I like that one!” I said.
Dad grinned, “that’s Venus”, he said. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant and stars twinkled because their light pulsed.
“I like it anyway” I said.
“What the hell,” Dad said. “It’s Christmas. You can have a planet if you want.”
And he gave me Venus.
Venus didn’t have any moons or satellites or even a magnetic field, but it did have an atmosphere sort of similar to Earth’s, except it was super hot-about 500 degrees or more. “So,” Dad said, “when the sun starts to burn out and Earth turns cold, everyone might want to move to Venus to get warm. And they’ll have to get permission from your descendants first.
We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. “Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars.”
Both parents have a disdain for normal society and living inside the confines of the American dream; however, they mismanage both their financial and emotional affairs. Although they inherit the grandmother’s home in Phoenix they eventually fall into that ever-present zone of turbulence, abandon their first decent residence and move to the father’s home town of Welch, West Virginia.
Welch is a depressed, coal-mining town and it is here that Rex begins to drink heavily and Rose Mary begins to drift inwards towards a life of self-absorption and indifference. The family begins to drift apart, particularly Walls’ father, who up to this point, had been worshipped and revered by his daughter. Like Walls’ mom, dad is a dreamer. Throughout the first part of the book, he captures the children’s imagination and draws plans for a “glass castle” promising the family that he will one day construct it. Once in West Virginia, the kids decide to dig a hole in the ground so that dad can begin construction. The result of the failed initiative serves as the turning point of the memoir:
Since we couldn’t afford to pay the town’s trash-collection fee, our garbage was really piling up. One day Dad told us to dump it in the hole.
“But that’s for the Glass Castle,” I said.
“It’s a temporary measure,” Dad told me. He explained that he was going to hire a truck to cart the garbage to the dump all at once. But he never got around to that, either, and as Brian and I watched, the hole for the Glass Castle’s foundation slowly filled with garbage.
The idea of the glass castle, as Jeannette herself talks about in an online interview “wasn’t a physical structure, but rather a dream: the hope of a better life.” With hope shattered, and determined not to end up like her parents, she (and eventually all of the other siblings) moves to New York, where the last third of the book unfolds. Jeannette, drawing from one of her dad’s best quotes, hopes for the best:
Anyone who thinks he’s too small to make a difference has never been bit by a mosquito.
Jeannette earns a living working part-time jobs, graduates from college, gains employment as a writer, marries a rich husband, and settles into a Park Avenue apartment. However, her parents, who also move to New York, reject their daughter’s lifestyle and instead choose to be homeless. Ironically, it is the mother who asks Jeannette, “Where are the values I raised you with?”
The memoir ends with the family having Thanksgiving together at Jeannette’s country home that she shares with her second husband. Rex, the father, has died and prior to dinner, Rose Mary proposes a toast:
Mom stared at the ceiling, miming perplexed thought. “I’ve got it.” She held up her glass: “Life with your father was never boring.”
We raised our glasses. I could almost hear Dad chuckling at Mom’s comment in the way he always did when he was truly enjoying something. It had grown dark outside. A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.”
Turbulence and order: the story of Jeannette Walls and her family. What is conspicuous in its absence throughout is Jeannette’s own critical reflections; we receive the stories (both humorous and shocking) but little introspection from the author. We are left to form our own judgments, which is as it should be. Walls herself explains:
Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, “This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it.”
I have always maintained that the function of literature is not to illustrate moral precepts but to illuminate human experience. Only those works that produce genuine insight into our human predicament can be called works of art. Jeannette Walls has produced a work of art. It will inform and lead into new places the flow of your sympathetic consciousness and will leave you thinking about your own identity: the narrative each of us constructs and lives.
The Glass Castle: another great 1 in the 52.