Tuesday 12 March 2013

The Glass Castle

It has been a bit of a Nerdy Non-Fiction year; this is the fifth non-fiction book I have read so far, 'The Glass Castle' by Jeannette Walls. I think this books says a great deal about childhood and family life that challenges my assumptions. It was a very hard read, not the story, that was delightfully told, but to try not to judge them was nigh on impossible, but Jeannette never passes judgement on her parents and so it feels unjustified to do so as a mere reader.

The book tells the story of Jeannette's family life from about the age of four. She seems to have amazing recall of the details of the very early period of her life, recounting events and conversations quite precisely. Their life is everything that society disapproves of, profoundly chaotic and unstable. They live a wandering life, homeless for some periods and moving from place to place often at short notice. They abandon possessions without a care and regularly go hungry. But what is plain is the strength of the bond their family has. Their parent's rejection of the consumerist society is taken to quite an extreme; they do attempt to be self sufficient, never taking state handouts, but frequently running away from debt. Her father is an alcoholic, a fact that dominates family life. He has grand plans to make their life better, including the one to build them a Glass Castle to live in, none of which ever come to anything. Their mother is an artist, who similarly never seems to be short of art supplies (their continued presence is mentioned after every move). It is almost as if they are two people who have made a decision about how they will live their life and the arrival of their children had little impact on the choices or decisions they made, as if they were just more people along for the ride. When they are very young their lifestyle is presented to the children as a grand adventure, and accepted as such, but as they get older they begin to see their life in a different way, to compare it to the lives of others and to want to escape it. Having lived for a period of relative comfort in a house inherited from their grandmother they then move to a shack on a hillside in Welch, West Virginia, where they spend their teenage years. In spite of the deprivations their lives are filled with books, almost a saving grace, that allows them all a means of escapism. I think it is the ultimate example of how you only live on the inside of your own life, that to them how they lived was 'normal', they didn't have the same expectations as other people, and they tended to live amongst other people who were equally poor. Eventually she and her older sister mastermind their escape to New York, in spite of their father stealing their escape fund, and drawing their siblings after them they all eventually make different lives for themselves. 

What was curious about my reaction to the book was that I found myself far more harsh in my view of the mother than the father. I did not like either of them, but I judged her for the neglect of her children far more. I judged her because she could have easily provided adequately for them, and chooses not to. There are periods where she works as a teacher but the children have to coax, cajole and support her through the process. And it did not seem to be just an inability to manage money, it is almost a disdain for it, that she would rather life were not like that. They are both so utterly self absorbed. At one point Rex (the father) takes Jeannette to a bar to use as a distraction to the man he is trying to con at pool. I actually thought he was going to prostitute her, and in fact he encourages her to go with the man, simply trusting that she can look after herself (she is about 13 at the time), but not really thinking at all about the situation he puts her in, because all he is interested in is making some money (she at least has the sense to refuse to go again). And then she buys a plastic piggy bank to store their savings in, I saw the outcome of this the minute she said the word piggy bank. The fact that he let them put money in it for nine months before he steals it actually made me think that he was malicious, watching them get their hopes up only to destroy them. And what I found incredible was that she is so naive. She lives with an alcoholic and she leaves this large amount of money in plain sight in their room and doesn't think to hide it. She openly tells her parents about their plan, the mother at least is supportive but the father seems threatened by the idea. All through the story she allows him to continue with this vain idea he has of himself as the head and supporter of a happy family, someone who never lets them down. She supports him in his delusions about himself and their life. But then that is what loving someone is I suppose, and she loves her dad, and I have never lived with an alcoholic. It was the moment when Mary Rose (mother) is hiding in bed eating chocolate when the children having nothing to eat that shocked me the most, that made me think that maybe this woman was not just slightly eccentric but possibly had some kind of deep seated problem. At the end we discover that not only does she still own the house her mother left her but that she owns land that is worth a million pounds, resources which she never used to make her children's lives more bearable. It just felt unnaturally selfish. The sink-or-swim approach to parenting that Rex and Mary Rose operate does seem to have resulted in some well adjusted and resourceful offspring but I can't help but feel that is more by accident than by design. I didn't like the fact that they constantly blamed outside forces for things that went wrong, neither was capable of taking responsibility for anything. I guess that was the aspect that I was judgemental of, not the choices they made, but their utter lack of responsibility. They really lived what they believed, that possessions were unimportant, but they took that one notion to such extremes that it resulted in a life without any material comforts at all. For years they all lived in the shack that rotted and fell apart around them, and yet no one did anything to improve it. Years of moving from place to place had convinced the children that they might up sticks at any time, so what was the point. Jeannette holds her shoes together with safety pins and eats margarine when it is the only food left in the house, and yet she never says she was unhappy. A totally engaging and honest book, certainly not your average life story, related almost matter-of-factly it is the people in it that keep you hooked. A book to make you rethink your attitudes and everything you take for granted in life.

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