Monday, August 16, 2010

The Glass Castle | Jeannette Walls

This book should be compulsory reading for all teens who think they have a tough life and their parents just don't get it. I think it's reassuring to say in the light of this non-fiction autobiography that 99% of us have had a pretty normal life....

The Wallis parents were hippy in attitude to life and parenting. They lived in the Arizona desert, in trailer parks, derelict stations and finally as homeless in New York. The opening scene is of Jeannette at three years of age cooking sausages on a stove and tipping the whole thing on herself and ending up in hospital. She remembers this not as a bad thing but as an opportunity to be in a safe, comfortable environment not moving around and being cared for by doting nurses. 

He mother is an airhead artist and her father an eccentric genius who is always on the verge of the next big breakthrough...if only he could stop drinking. The family moves around a lot because they have to keep one step ahead of debt collectors. Income is spasmodic and mostly rely on rent on property the mother has in Texas. 

In the end they go back to Virginia to where the father comes from. I thought the previous locations were depressing but honestly, that town takes the cake. It's a very dull, damp and depressed town which depends on the coal mines around it. They live in a ramshackle house with no electricity or toilet...The parents deteriorate and the kids take over the budgeting and managing of the family. it's incredible to read of the role reversal and the dreams and aspirations they have. Jeannette and her older sister begin to save to send her to new York. Eventually they both make it and begin stable lives there. They bring their brother up and eventually all become reasonably well adjusted. 
After a few years the chaotic parents arrive unannounced and ask to be put up for a while. eventually they chose to live on the streets and then squat in a building which the father rigs up with power from the main grid.

It's a remarkable book to read because it champions the resilience of the human spirit. I don't know how Jeannette and her two siblings came through all this and have relatively normal lives now. Their youngest sister did not and seems to have inherited her parents' chaotic nature. There are many stories out there about difficult childhoods and how scared and traumatised the kids are forever and how things repeat themselves. But this story is one of triumph over adversity and overcoming obstacles by dreaming and persevering. 

The Glass Castle
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