If you were able to catch my last post about Copper Bound, hopefully you had some time to read The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls.
I’ll start by saying 1) SPOILER ALERT, and 2) that upon reading the title, I thought I knew what would happen in this book. But let me tell you—I had NO IDEA. I tend to approach my choices for books and films the same way: when I get enough recommendations, and am exposed to numerous glimmering 4-star reviews on Goodreads (or high percentages on Rotten Tomatoes), I then decide to read or watch. I try not to read in-depth reviews because I don’t like when the story is spoiled for me. My favorite feeling is sheer excitement from literally knowing the least I can possibly know about the story, and absorbing everything for the first time as the story unfolds.
I try not to base books on their titles, but in the case of The Glass Castle I couldn’t help myself. Not unlike the film’s vague poster, I imagined…blue skies. A simpler time. Maybe a few daydreams about a beautiful glass castle. And even a happy ending. What else could be evoked by a castle made of glass? What I was not expecting was for the castle to represent a metaphor of neglect…a fantasy that was total distraction from reality. A castle, destroyed by what makes it so beautiful—it’s fragile, transparent exterior.
What I was not expecting was to be taken to this place, this part of the United States that metropolitan areas of middle- and upper-class America seems to be unbelievably ignorant of. The life that Jeannette shares with the reader is one that pulls us into what feels like an entirely new world. Mostly set in the late 1950s-1960s, a pivotal time in American history, we are shown what life through the eyes of Jeannette as she grows, starting from age three. What makes her particular approach at telling this story so transformative is that, although you know that the naive, bright-eyed purity of a child’s perspective can maintain a completely warped sense of reality, I still retained the optimism that she had, right a long with her.
The book opens with Jeanette in New York City, revealing that her parent’s are homeless there. She, on the other hand seems to have become quite successful. As a New Yorker, who is exposed to homelessness and passes by homeless people multiple times a day, I was immediately puzzled. With so many theories about homelessness in the United States, I’d never fathomed the possibility that someone could actually become homeless by choice. This idea is explored through the life of Jeannette Walls.
In the beginning of the book, I was shocked at the extreme conditions that Jeannette was exposed to, even by the age of three. Preparing meals for herself over an open fire, having little to no supervision. At every point and every turn, I thought, wow, it can’t get worse that this. And yet it did. Throughout the entire book, we are able to understand what the gradual effects of addition, abuse and neglect can do to a family. It was interesting to see how Jeannette and each of her siblings were affected by their family dynamic—all of them had distinctly varied reactions to the many compromising situations that peppered their childhood. Still, her parents encouraged curiosity and a love for science and literature within the household, and the four children performed well above their age-level in school. They moved their family around frequently, getting out of dodge when they found themselves in sticky situations.
As enchanted I was by Jeannette’s mother’s penchant for high class goods yet total lack of ability to take responsibility for her own actions, I was equally charmed by the relationship that Jeanntte and her father had, yet disgusted by the complete disregard for his family’s well-being. Still, I couldn’t help but totally empathize with Jeannette–her writing allowed me to take every step with here, experiencing each unfortunate indecent through the eyes of a child, and would become sadder as she came into full consciousness about her place in the world and articulated with frank honesty the disappointment she felt after constantly being let down by the two people she trusted most.
I found also myself wondering what was going on simultaneously during the Civil Rights movement, which was happening during this time. Eventually her family moves to a deeply divided, and poor area of West Virginia. I saw what it was like for a child, although stricken with poverty, was never consciously forced to think about race relations while growing up on the West Coast in America to then, in adolescence experience head-on the culture-shock of the Jim Crow south. After fighting to gain respect in her neighborhood, Jeannette finally finds a friend in a black girl. Soon, she realizes that her friendship would be shrouded by the racism, the discomfort causing them to continue their friendship in secret until one day, her friend, implied to have been raped by her mother’s boyfriend, eventually becomes pregnant by him. She kills him and ends up going to jail.
A series of unfortunate events continue to unfold as Jeannette experiences the ultimate downfall of her parents, and total loss of trust. Her beloved father, who she maintained more faith in than any of her siblings, continues to expose her to frighteningly vulnerable situations and ultimately begins to steal money from her to feed his booze and gambling addiction. Her mother, prone to bouts of deep depression loses her optimism and motivation to help the family. Jeannette and her siblings begin to fantasize about moving to New York, to start fresh and find some sliver of reality that mirrors their individual fantasies of the American Dream. Eventually, one-by-one, they do. Jeannette describe the nuances of New York, and I found myself understanding exactly what she meant. New York, for me as well, became a place of refuge, a place I felt a sense of belonging, and I was so happy to finally see her pursue something all her own.
Soon enough though, her parents, who find it impossible to live without the only thing that brought positivity and optimism to their lives, their children, follow them and arrive to New York. After several unsuccessful attempts to live with each of their children, decided to squat in a flat on the Lower East Side, and finally, after some time, find themselves homeless. And they are okay with this. Their children, are not. Not at first. But they come to reconcile with it. The kicker here is, Jeannette’s mother is actually quite wealthy. She has inherited a considerable amount of land, as well as a home from her parents. But, consistently missing the forest for the trees, obsesses over frugality, preferring to “sit” on the assets and “keep them in the family.” She decides not to leverage any of her family fortune to make a life comfortable for herself, her husband, and her children.
The Glass Castle touches on so many different issues, and that’s what makes it so brilliant to me. Family dynamic, addition, selfishness, love, hate, classism, homelessness, education. The largest theme though, is the bond Jeannette shares with her father, even after he passes away. Ms. Walls ends the book, having forgiven him, her mother, and herself, all whom she felt immense pressure and ultimately reaching a point at which she is able to let go of the feelings of resentment she held for so long, and accept that though she cannot change her circumstances, she can change her perspective.
I highly recommend The Glass Castle. In many ways, it was a coming-of-age story, and in others, it was a testament to the many ways we learn to love and the impact each has on us at different points in our lives.
Did you get to read The Glass Castle with Copper Bound? Did you get what I did out of the book? Did you get something else? Leave a comment on your thoughts below.
Next month, for our June book, we will be reading The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which has recently been adapted for television, by Hulu.