Thursday, January 03, 2008

Feel like a Bad Mother? At least you're not Rose Mary Walls

The Glass Castle
By Jeanette Walls

Everyone is recommending this book, and as a former publicist and author of two novels published to deafening indifference, I’m not one to heap additional praise upon those who have already summitted the best seller list with no help from me.

However, in this case, I urge you to read Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle because, in addition to the fact that everyone you know is insisting you HAVE to read it, and you’re feeling somewhat like an uncultured, sheltered mumsie for not having done so, it is simply an astounding book, with a story as riveting as any fictional horror tale (ahem, James Frey). Now that I’m a parent, I read this book with a different kind of voraciousness. I simply could not believe parents could behave this way, or that their children could be so resilient, not only surviving but later thriving, with nothing but their own wits and each other as resources.

The Glass Castle is the story of a poor family as they move from place to place, the parents skirting responsibility, convention and authority every place they go. They live in their car, in an abandoned train station, an inherited house for a brief, comfortable time, and finally in a poor West Virginian mining town amidst some strange and abusive relatives who eventually kick them out.

Imagine your three year-old at the stove by herself, cooking a hot dog for dinner (because neither of her parents can be bothered to do it) and then catching fire. Imagine your daughter and son scrambling through the school garbage cans after lunch period ends, in order to both survive and also avoid the shame of sitting beside children with fully packed lunchboxes. Imagine your daughter coloring on her skin where the holes in her pants are, so as to better disguise their condition. Imagine your family of six living in a dilapidated, condemned house with no electricity, heat or plumbing in the dead of winter, and you as a mother telling your kids to “pick off the maggotty parts” of the ham to eat. Imagine their father stealing their hard earned cash savings to go on a drinking binge, and you hoarding a fat Hershey’s candy bar all for yourself, hidden in your bed, as your children shrink to skin and bones. And yet, they love you.

All of this not due to illness, terrible hardship and unforeseen circumstance but simple…will. Wall’s mother fancied herself an artistic type who had no use for domesticity. Her father was a dreamer, a romantic, life with him seemed an endless adventure that eventually became less fun as she and her siblings grew older and wiser. He was also an incurable drunk. Perhaps what is most incredible about Wall’s experience and indeed her voice in this memoir is her matter of fact style as she recounts her childhood horrors with no self pity or bitterness. There is even a remarkable though controlled, affection as she writes about the family’s adventures and her father’s promises, and the fact that they all stuck together until things became so unbearable, and the children old enough, to venture out on their own.

The book opens with the well dressed, now married Walls traveling in a taxi through the streets of New York City. By chance she glances out the window and sees her mother rooting through a dumpster. She meets her for breakfast shortly thereafter, offering her help and resources – which her mother steadfastly refuses.

After all she has been through, after all she and her siblings suffered at the hands of their neglectful parents, Walls has earned the right to turn her back on them completely. But she never does, and the remarkable peace she seems to have made with them speaks to the power of family, however you define it.