Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Glass Castle

This weeks book, The Glass Castle was a spur of the moment purchase. Having seen it in a variety of stores before, I didn't hesitate before choosing it to read this week. Author, Jeannette Walls, has carved a story with precision and grace out of one of the most chaotic, heartbreaking childhoods ever to be set down on the page. This deeply affecting memoir is a triumph in every possible way, and it does what all good books should: it affirms our faith in the human spirit.

Jeannette Walls is one of four children brought up by parents who are totally eccentric and often dangerously neglectful, whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. As Walls explains early in the story: "Mom believed that children shouldn't be burdened with rules and restrictions." In the beginning, the Walls family lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, was a painter who couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town, and the family, Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

While Walls and her siblings aren't abused by their parents in the conventional sense of the word, the constant chaos and upheaval in their everyday lives and the things they had to do to deal with the extreme poverty they faced - rummaging for food in dumpsters was an everyday occurrence - leave the reader wondering how the kids could even begin to survive such ramshackle parenting. Incredibly, three of the four siblings do better than survive. They grow into highly responsible, caring and contributing members of society.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

Here is a biography that will quietly take your breath away. The main characters aren't famous, infamous, or doing anything that will remotely change the world. But in every way, and in a beautiful way, this is a story about the very essence of human spirit. It will touch your heart and make you count your blessings, no matter what challenges you face.

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