The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls (2005, Scribner)
After reading this memoir, part of me wonders just how the author has dealt with her extraordinary childhood and her relationships with her parents and her siblings without repeated lie-downs on the therapist’s couch. Her father was an extremely intelligent and inventive man, but he was also a conspiracy theorist, a gambler, and an alcoholic, only employed when it suited him. He constantly uprooted his family and moved when things got too hot to handle. Her mother was an artist and writer, preferring to create over looking after her family. Although trained as a teacher, she worked under extreme duress, and then only rarely. Thus, the author and her two sisters and one brother found themselves pretty much alone to care for themselves. They were so poor that often there was no food in the house and the kids had to scrounge in the garbage cans at school; they had unmended hand-me-downs for clothing; they lived in various unheated and unplumbed and dilapidated shacks like squatters. Life was a struggle for the entire family, but Walls doesn’t spend a second of her time feeling sorry for herself. She seems to look on her childhood with a wonder that she and her siblings actually survived, and a certain amount of gratitude for having nothing – and despite her parent’s choices, she doesn’t seem to blame them one bit. She honours the lessons her father and mother taught her, valuable teachings such as holding all of nature dear and not wasting anything, never accepting charity, achieving complete self-sufficiency, seeing beauty and art in everything, and using creative problem-solving. So while the reader sits aghast and angry that the author’s parents could treat their children in such a manner, and fail so deliberately to provide any luxuries (or even necessities, in some cases), Walls seems to actually value her difficult past. It’s quite the read, guaranteed to drum up some indignant, raw emotion. And it certainly gets you thinking about how a simple, no-roots, edge-of-survival lifestyle might be – would you have, in your youth, been able to handle all of the situations Walls and her siblings find themselves in?