on March 1st, 2005
Genres: autobiography, nonfiction
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Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they 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, who painted and wrote and 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.
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.
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.
Each year, for Banned Book Week, I choose a novel that has been recently under fire in the news, or has come under attack in public schools. In 2011, I picked What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones. It was under fire back then for the “sexual content”. In 2012, I picked up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. At the time, it was one that was getting quite a bit of backlash, and I had it in my library, so it was my choice for the year. Sad to say, due to some issues, I had to skip for 2013.
This year, my pick for Banned Book Week was influenced by the decision of the Highland Park ISD to remove Walls’ book, The Glass Castle, from the curriculum. I was enraged when I discovered that this happened right in my own North Texas backyard! I constantly brag about the liberal portions of Texas, which can include Dallas, and it angered me to see a well rounded community take away books from the classroom because of trivial issues. To add insult to injury, the author of The Glass Castle is appearing at the festival for literacy next year for the district as a guest to the community, the very same one that threw her books out of the classroom. She is taking it like a champ, and seems to be fairing well after this insult. I, on the other hand, had a meltdown on Twitter.
So her book won the spot on my reading list for this year’s Banned Book Week.
Not only did I support a censored author, but I found a book that hit close to home. I grew up in a poverty-stricken household, and the story about a girl overcoming things she could not control, and beating the odds that were stacked against her, helped put some of my own regrets and bad memories of the past to rest.
I mentioned in my review for Eleanor & Park that I wanted to see more books addressing poverty – extreme, life-scarring poverty. I hit the mother load regarding this particular topic. I hate to see others go through some of the struggles I faced growing up, but it is nice to know that you are not alone, and that other people get it when you discuss the best way to deal with cockroaches, or what to do when your electricity is switched off due to lack of payment. It was something I never felt that I could discuss with other people at my school, even though I came from a welfare-stricken community. It was taboo to talk about your filthy living environment, lack of grooming, or the anxiety that accompanied extreme weather conditions. I can remember spending all of my time outside in the summers, sleeping on the trampoline, because I hated sleeping in my dilapidated house. I grew hostile and indifferent towards friends when they requested to come over and spend the night.
Walls, however, did have a more extreme situation than I did. For the most part, we were able to afford food and heating when the temperatures grew colder, and I was able to attend school functions and band camp after some extreme fund raising . I was low on the SES food chain, but Walls’ autobiography reminded me that things could have been worse.
I am flat out amazed what she was able to overcome in her life and how she stayed positive and determined to succeed. Whereas my struggle seemed to beat me down earlier in life, Walls used her disadvantage as fuel for her desire to break the cycle. In her story, she retells her battles with starvation, bullying, sexual assault and general child neglect. Just when the reader believes that the story can’t get any worse, it seems to hit a new low, but Walls never pities herself or her siblings. Instead, she highlights how she was able to tackle these demons and still keep herself together. Walls recounts her regrets and her mistakes, but she never once brings in pity or sorrow into the story. There are times where my sympathy for her almost killed my heart, but she lets the story speak for itself. The determination of her and her three sibilings is nothing short of amazing.
This book is heavy. Even as I sit here and attempt to write some sort of review for the novel, I keep coming up short. It is a book that you tell others that you just have to read it to believe it.
Before I wrap this up, there was one element of the novel that I have to tough upon. There were so many themes that I could pick out that I couldn’t say I enjoyed, but simply admired in the novel. There was one factor of the story that kept clawing at my own heart, a thread of the plot that lit me up and yet clung to my own mind: The debt we owe to our parents, either emotionally, figuratively, or financially. This debt, even though it might not be deserved, it still granted to the parents of the novel. The author always paid respect and granted forgiveness to her deadbeat parent. At the same time, she never manipulated the audience to openly hate Ma and Pa Walls. I often turned into a ball of rage that she kept giving her parents a free pass, even when her father tried to pimp her out and stole money at every opportunity. The mother wasn’t any better, with her flippant attitude towards her starving children, secretly sneaking food while her children went without, and demanded to be pities and forgiven over and over. My mind was blowing up with offensive thoughts when each incident cropped up. However, I know that parents just fall into a different category when it comes to what you can tolerate. It is always a struggle to hold onto that disappointment and anger when it comes to the parental figures. It is a constant struggle to keep to a toxic family member out of your life, but duty and obligation often tear down that wall slowly, only to let these particular people rush in and cause more damage. I believe that many of us can name a person in our lives that seems to fit this bill. So, even though it pissed me off a great deal to watch Walls still take responsibility for her parents, I can relate to this battle, and I understand the conflicting and often contradictory relationship of a parent or a relative that is like Agent Orange to your relationship.
This isn’t a story you read, it is a story you live and feel. Even readers with a healthy financial upbringing can find something significant in the story. The social and moral material will surely spark confessions and discussions from everyone who touched this novel. Witnessing the author’s bravery for admitting to some very damning testimony about the people around her made me strive to overcome some of the resentment still clinging to my own heart. Uplifting, honest and unapologetic, The Glass Castle will make you to hurt, hope, and heal.