The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
This was a book I suggested for my f2f bookgroup, because it was on my shelf and unread. It had sounded interesting when I first heard of it but my interest had paled. I started reading it though and was totally hooked. If, like me, you heard about this book from a friend or on the radio or TV, you probably heard that it begins with the author leaving her Park Avenue home in a taxi, dressed for a concert, and when the taxi stops in traffic, and she sees her Mother sorting through a nearby dumpster in search of something useful or valuable. The author was so upset she asked the driver to turn around and take her home. How could you stop reading without understanding the background of that story?
Dispassionately and honestly written, Walls' memoir of her precarious childhood was mostly amusing at first as her parents lived in substandard housing in small towns in the Arizona-California-Nevada desert and "skedaddled" when things got tough—when her father got fired, or the bills built up or there was some positive reason to move on—like gold (literally) in the next town. They always expected their ship to come in—the father had drawn up plans for an efficient, environmentally friendly house he called the glass castle, which they would build when they got some money—hence the title.The memoir is written in short chapters, each focusing on an incident or anecdote. At first it's more amusing than dark, possibly because the author was reflecting on life when she was very young.
Still the first incident, the author's earliest memory, was when she was seriously burned at 3 years old, spent 6 weeks in hospital and carried a lasting scar. Her parents didn't believe in "overprotecting" children, but I found myself cringing at the risks they took for these four children. Halfway through the book, the situation darkens considerably, as the family leaves the West (where the mother grew up) and moves in with the father's family in a coal-mining town in West Virginia. Jeannette is 10 or 11 then and going to school regularly (before the parents had taught them mostly at home—and taught them well). She could see how other people lived. They live in a two-room shack with electricity (when they pay the bills which is infrequently) but no indoor plumbing. They had no furniture—when they kids were little they slept in cardboard boxes—and Rex (the father) build crude bunk beds for all four in one room. He was increasingly drunk and angry and the children were seriously deprived—freezing in winter, wet because the house leaked, and frequently hungry. They worked as soon as they could—without that they'd not eat.
Lori, the oldest, finishes high school and goes to NY and Jeannette joins her after the 11th grade. The other two follow suit. The fact that they all help each other, though, testifies to the closeness of the family and when the parents turn up with all their possessions in an old, illegally registered van, they say it's to keep the family together. The reader, guided by the author, likes and respects Rex in spite of his faults. The mother is certainly amusing but seems ultimately more selfish. The parents get thrown out of several NY locations and end up on the streets for several years before they find a squat. Rex, always handy, fixes it up and helps everyone in the abandoned walkup by figuring out how to tap into someone else's electricity. He dries out occasionally, even gets a job upstate but the mother entices him to come back and when he does he comes back to drinking again.
It's a fast read, amusing but never, in spite of the subject, depressing. Ultimately one has a bit of envy for one growing up in such a family in spite of it all.