Day 241: “The Glass Castle” Book Review, aka Parents Gone Wild

(Note: This is actually a blog post I wrote last July, before I started this 365 Day project.  I never posted this because I was “in my head” about it, over-thinking it.  After checking it out again tonight eight months later, it turns out it’s good enough for prime time!)

In the last 3 1/2+ years, I have read over 100 books, as part of a personal campaign I took on to read more.  This may not be as many books as my fourteen-year old niece says she reads in one year’s time, but I am happy at least to be reading regularly.

Last year, to increase the breadth of what I was reading, I made a concerted effort to read female authors (in addition to the primarily male novelists and financial writers I was reading).  Continuing in that vein, so far this year I have read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, the Patternist series by Octavia Butler (a truly remarkable 4-book sci-fi series), “When Books Went to War” by Molly Guptill Manning (a wonderful book chronicling the distribution of books to U.S. soldiers during World War II), and most recently, “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls.

“The Glass Castle” is a moving and at times harrowing account of life for four children growing up with two bohemian and highly eccentric parents. (By the way, the movie is well-made and does a good job of bringing this story to life.  However, this post is about my experience reading the book.)

I struggle to write what my reaction was when I first started reading.  Our narrator, as a three-year old girl, is allowed to burn herself nearly to death while cooking her food, spends 6 weeks in the hospital, and then is kidnapped, er “liberated,” by her parents without the consent of the hospital because they don’t like hospitals anyway.  Besides, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right?

This is our introduction to the Walls family.  From there, the narrative is a ceaseless and gut-wrenching depiction of children being forced to endure every challenge one wouldn’t expect to be inflicted on someone’s worst enemy, as the parents systematically eschew every aspect of what we consider normal life to live their highly unconventional, and at times highly dangerous notion of “adventure.”

For example, there are the  nighttime “skeedaddles” from their home to a new area, because the parents didn’t bother to pay their bills and need to escape their creditors.  On one such occasion, the kids are put into the back (yes, as in the pitch black part with the other furniture) of a U-Haul for a 9 hour (?) drive.  One of the little girls is made to hold her 3 year-old sister… without car seats or seat belts of any kind.  The mother brainwashes them, er “explains” to them, that this is an adventure in the dark.  When the back of the U-Haul door swings open, of course the ne’er-do-well parents in their cushy front seats do not notice, and the narrator’s brother nearly falls out of the truck (which would lead presumably to his death) before another car honks at the parents to check out what’s going on in the back.  Of course, then the father blames the children for the situation.

Every crazy, stupid bit of trouble the parents make their four children endure is prefaced with some kind of fairy-tale, pie-in-the-sky description from the mother about how they are going on “an adventure.”  We, the readers, are made to convulse at the very deft irony, which Walls achieves through her very plain, journalistic writing style.  She need not embellish: the horror of the ordeal the parents put the kids through speaks for itself on every page.

As far as I can tell, these parents inflicted every type of adversity on their kids,  with the possible exception of outright physical abuse (though they never killed their own kids, it could be argued that they repeatedly tried!).

As a reader, I found myself spiraling between horror on the one hand, at the parents extreme neglect and carelessness, and fascination and even wonder at times.  For instance, in one scene, Jeanette’s father insists on taking the kids  to the zoo to get up and close and personal with the animals (whom they have expressed fear of).  He has them stand right next to the cage of a cougar, and, miraculously, through his intention and confidence, actually seems to earn the cougar’s permission for the children come up to it and pet it.  Yes, a real cougar!  This scene was remarkable, and quite a great analogy for the horrific, wondrous, death-defying world the Walls inhabit.

I was struck by the parent’s continual resistance to get or keep work, their refusal to keep their financial agreements, and their attitude of superiority over the rules that constrain most people in lawful society.  At the same time, they displayed intelligence and and a certain high-mindedness that was at time inspiring.  Also, I liked how they taught their children to read before any one else, as the author notes.

As I said, the parents display a certain superior attitude towards daily life, which I would describe as this:  “We are too good for society.  We don’t need to follow any rules.  We don’t need to work. We can just do things our way.” They justify what is basically complete lack of what most people consider responsibility with allusions to history and convincing-sounding arguments.  The narrator is raised in the parental equivalent of riding on a pig trough and a chicken coup on the back of a jerky old pickup bumbling down a bumpy dirt road at top speed.  While she holds on for dear life and tries not to lose her lunch, she is told that they are actually on Cinderella’s carriage, riding gracefully to the ball!

Miraculously, through all the constant adversity the children face, the three older ones all mature into able-bodied, successful adults, living in New York City (where they finally escape) and creating lives for themselves that resemble those of much more “normal” people.  The parents, of course, come to New York to be with them, and even manage to out-do themselves: they end up living homeless on the streets, and then squat in an abandoned building for fifteen years.

Because they can’t be bothered to take jobs or make money.  They are too good for it.

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