Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

A memoir about a family living on the edge, deliberately.

Walls is born to parents who are highly intelligent and creative but whose own presumably (and suggested) dark pasts make them both junkies for excitement and change. Thus they live from hand to mouth, rarely staying in one place longer than a couple of months, for the early part of Jeanette's childhood. Jeanette's father is an alcoholic who isn't able to keep a job but who has big dreams as well as big smarts. He manages to keep their various vehicles alive one way or another, devises engineering feats where necessary, teaches his children about the stars, about physics, about math, proudly pushes them (literally) into the water where they must sink or swim.

Her mother wraps herself into her own creative ventures, painting, writing, sketching, and is usually ready when the family has to "skedaddle" in the middle of the night. Neither parent worries about the health of their children, living by the maxim that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. On this front it appears that her mother is the tougher of the two in some respects.

By the time Jeanette and her family move into Welch, Virginia, her father's childhood home, she certainly can take care of herself. She worships her father yet recognizes that he has failed her time and again. All of the children - Lori, Jeanette, Brian, and Maureen - somehow manage to find food, stay clothed, and go to school, and even excel. They don't make friends easily, finding that even in this "okie" territory they are outcasts, dirtier, skinnier, and tougher than the rest.

It's a memoir of a tough life that at times seemed wondrous to Jeanette. Being given a star for her birthday. Sleeping in a cardboard appliance box. Being encouraged to challenge life rather than be challenged by it. Thus it is more than a sad tale of children of an alcoholic, even though those of us who share that distinction are going to recognize some of the responses. It is more a tale of resilience and hope and ultimately simply acceptance.

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