Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

I read this book for my book club--just like every other book club in America, it seems. All of us women slipping gracefully into a youthful middle age, reading books about how badly our parents' generation served its children. Well, as much as I like to be unlike everybody else, there are some books you just have to read to understand what is going on in the culture. So we read this.

First of all, this is a memoir, and I have to confess that I have failed to finish EVERY SINGLE book of non-fiction our group has selected. Sure, I believe you when you tell me Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose is outstanding--I just can NOT make my way through it. The incredible story of an unlikely racehorse, Seabiscuit? Nope. Couldn't get past the second chapter, and I tried. I read the first chapter about five times, because as soon as I put the book down, I forgot what had happened. I have nothing by admiration for what it took to get that book written. . .but I just can't read it.

The Glass Castle was different. Perhaps it's the transparency of the writing, or the story-teller instincts of its author, but I managed to read this in near record time.

What is it about? What, are you the only person in the English speaking world who hasn't read this yet? Synopsis: Jeannette Walls, the second of four children of Rex and Rosemary Walls, grows up and out of her parents' bohemian incompetent household, while holding on to her memories of the good that happened, while looking with clear eyes at the bad.

The book starts with Jeannette having to confront her own feelings about her parents. While being driven to a meeting in Manhattan, the car passes her mother, who is digging through the trash barrels beside the road. Jeannette is so embarrassed by seeing her mother like this, and so ashamed and afraid that someone will connect the two of them, that she slides down in the seat of the car and orders the driver to take her back home. Later, she takes her mother out to lunch and tells her mother that it is humiliating to have a parent who shops in the garbage. Her mother is completely dismissive of her concern: 'You think too much about what other people think," she admonishes. And with this scene, the tone for the first half of the book is set.

Starting at age three, Jeannette recounts her life with her parents and their laissez faire parenting style. While trying to cook hot dogs by herself on the stove, Jeannette's nightgown catches fire and she spends a very long time in the hospital recovering from serious burns. Her father bundles her out of the hospital before she is discharged--and before he can billed for her care. Soon afterward, she is back making hot dogs on the stove because her mother doesn't feed her. The Walls family response seems to be "these things happen, and so now you know."

And the book careens on, with examples of what must surely be criminal neglect of the children by the parents. Rex Walls is a polymath with great dreams and a serious problem with alcohol. Rosemary is both his enabler and victim, never standing up to him, living him for his charm, living with the danger of his alcoholic rages. The family lives in the Southwest desert, sliding out of town whenever the debts get too big and the collectors get too close. For the early years of her life, Jeannette doesn't mind this life, and there is a flavor of Laura Ingalls Wilder about the experience. If Rex were trying to farm, or do anything to support his family, then the hardships and the moves and the primitive living arrangements might just be what life was like. But as time passes, it becomes apparent that--however charming they might be--these were two people who have no business raising kids.

Things get worse after Rosemary's mother dies, and that source of income disappears. The family moves into her house, but they have no more idea of how to run or maintain a house than a cat has, and it is soon overrun by insects and vermin, and starts to fall apart. Rosemary browbeats her husband into driving the family across the country to ask for financial help from his mother. They leave laundry on a line outside, so burglars will think someone is home and leave the house alone, and head for Appalachia.

Where we are shown--graphically--where Rex inherited his alcoholism. Mama Walls is every stereotype of hillbilly white trash you can imagine. She is so horrible that Rex and Rosemary run away, back to the house in the desert, leaving the four children with this angry, resentful, uneducated and alcoholic woman, who even molests the boy. There is no going back to the desert, because the laundry "security" didn't stop anyone from stealing anything that was left to be stolen, and Rex and Rosemary finally return to Appalachia.

Things continue to go from bad to worse--they move out of Mama Walls house and into a shack balanced precariously on the mountainside. There is no plumbing, just a toilet sitting on the ground under the house. There is a coal stove, but with Rex drinking any money that comes into the household, they can't afford coal. The stove explodes when they try to burn wood, and the resulting holes in the walls and ceiling are never repaired. Jeannette's brother uses a tarp for a blanket to stay dry. With no heat or insulation, dishes freeze into the sink over the winter. Garbage piles up in back of the house, and the rickety stair to the front door disintegrates.

Finally, the kids realize that their parents are never going to get them out of this place, so they make plans to move to New York--they take on odd jobs around town and save up to send the oldest daughter once she graduates from high school. There is the obligatory setback when Dad steals their coins for alcohol, but one by one the kids move to New York and find jobs, apartments with plumbing, and go about moving up.

Of course, the parents follow, and continue their self-destructive and irresponsible lives. Rex ends up in detox, gets a job at a resort in upstate New York, but returns at Rosemary's request because she misses him. He is soon drinking again, and the pair of them are soon homeless. Rex dies, but the oldest three kids have made stable lives for themselves. The youngest, Maureen, has grown up to repeat her parents' destructive pattern, and has disappeared somewhere in the West. By the end, there is hope that the oldest three kids will live productive and happy lives, and that Rosemary will simply continue in her own way.

I was surprised by the nearly universal dislike my book club had for this book. My dear friend Micki never has any patience with bad parenting in books, but that was not her complaint this time. Instead, she was unable to accept that this book was anything but highly fictionalized. "Embellished" may have been the word she used. She felt that the book was beyond what a child could have remembered, especially the earliest years.

The rest of the club found the story just to horrible to be "true." Whenever something bad could happen, not only did it happen, but it happened in the worst possible way and then got even worse than that. James Frey's name came up--the author of "A Million Little Pieces" was raked over the coals and his reputation was trashed because his "memoir" was really fiction--how had Jeannette Walls escaped that fate too?

I recuse myself from that kind of speculation, primarily because I do so badly at reading non-fiction. I don't feel qualified to weigh in on the "non-ness"of its fiction. Oddly, I did enjoy this book, probably because of its artificiality--it had a novelistic structure that resonated for me. The writing was clear and effective--there was one scene where Jeannette encounters a rat in their Appalachian shack that positively gave me the creeps. I do have a thing about rats, and she managed to press all those buttons.

In the end, it's an entertaining read, and raised a number of intriguing questions for me to ponder. How much "bad" parenting is really bad, if the result is someone like Jeannette Walls? If it was so bad, why is it that the youngest daughter, who escaped most of the difficulties of her upbringing, is unable to cope in the real world? If this had all taken place during the 1870s, instead of the 1970s, would this have been another Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer story, rather than a 21st century book about dysfunction?

Really, what can we do about people who shouldn't have kids, but have them anyway? And where do we draw the lines? After all, one really can't predict what kind of parent one will be until the babies are born, and then what? People can learn and grow, and there is no single model for "successful parenting." And how would you define it anyway? By the results--the adults those kids become?

I found it a fascinating read, and it made me both question my own parenting (am I guilty of some of this?) and relax about it--after all, how bad a parent can I be, compared to these idiots? It's definitely worth the time it takes to read--which is not an endorsement I give lightly.