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Posts Tagged ‘What’s in a name 5’

I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

–  Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle

Last year, I read a coming-of-age memoir that was disturbingly bizarre. No, not The Glass Castle, although it can also be quite accurately described that way. The book that I read, and disliked very much, was Running with Scissors. My childhood and teenage years were, for the most part, remarkably normal and quite secure, and therefore in complete contrast with the extraordinarily strange life that Augusten Burroughs describes in his book. My dislike stemmed not from the fact that I couldn’t relate to his singular childhood, but that I couldn’t find any humor in what was clearly intended to be hilarious. Instead of finding his account bizarre and witty, I found it bizarre and off-putting. And quite sad.

The Glass Castle, on the other hand, made me stay up till the wee hours of the morning, wanting to read ‘just one more chapter’. This book is author Jeannette Walls’ account of her itinerant childhood spent with a set of splendidly unorthodox parents, her siblings, an assortment of animals, and stubborn, stubborn poverty. Set mostly in the 1960s and 70s, in towns that few non-Americans would be able to point out on a map (though I suspect that many Americans might have trouble locating them as well), and always described in a matter-of-fact voice, when describing hardship, and fleeting moments of escape from hardship alike, Walls succeeds in making all the struggles, the adventures, the hunger and scavenging the trash cans for half-eaten sandwiches, and the relentless poverty sound almost comical.

The book begins with a three-year old Walls in a pink dress, standing on a chair in front of the stove, cooking hot dogs, and eventually suffering serious burns to her little body. From the first few accounts, a picture emerges of the Walls family: poor, eccentric and very unique. Walls’ father, a self-described entrepreneur, is best known as the ‘town drunk’ and shares with his kids his ambitious project and blueprints to build a glass house for the family in the desert. Undeniably intelligent, and quite effortlessly charming, he is almost always between jobs or urging his family to do the skedaddle when the town becomes too hot for him. Walls’ mother is equally unusual, an heiress who lives in abject poverty, a painter who:

…didn’t like cooking much – “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d ask us, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that can last forever?” – so once a week or so, she’d fix a big cast iron vat of something like fish and rice or, usually, beans. We’d all sort the beans together, picking out the rocks, then Mom would soak them overnight, boil them the next day with an old ham bone to give them flavor, and for that entire week we’d have beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the beans started going bad, we’d just pit extra spice in them, like the Mexicans at the LBJ Apartments always did.

Walls’ mother also did not approve of eye glasses.

 If you had weak eyes, Mom believed, they needed exercise to get strong. The way she saw it, glasses were like crutches. They prevented people with feeble eyes from learning to see the world on their own.

And so, Walls and her three siblings learn to fend for themselves, defending themselves and each other from tormentors in school, foraging for fruit and scraps when food was scarce at home, and in the process becoming incredibly resilient, protective, creative and unusually resourceful, such as when the author attempts to correct her faulty jawline by making her own braces with rubber bands, metal coat hangers and a Kotex sanitary napkin (for padding).

Moving from town to town, from California to Nevada to Arizona, from school to school, always not knowing where their next meal is going to come from, the family ultimately settles down in Welsh, West Virginia, in a house that can only be described as a dump. These desert kids, at home going barefoot in the scalding desert sand, collecting garnet, turquoise, granite, obsidian, geodes, fool’s gold and bull frogs, are seen as outsiders and freaks in this small, cold, racist mining town that they never really get used to. As their home situation gets increasingly impossible, these gifted children, who surely must have been a lot more troubled and less merry than the tone often implies, dream of escape to New York City and eventually live out their dreams (some of it at least). The story ends with the kids, now all grown up, living in New York City (with the exception of the distant Maureen, the youngest), sharing a loving yet difficult relationship with their ever singular parent(s), who continue to live exciting lives as homeless squatters, diving the dumpster for supplies.

Wall’s story of poverty and hunger is as poignant as her parents are memorable. Singular individuals with unique philosophies, they dole out entertainment, love and difficulty in equal measure.

“But Mom”, I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food [of a two-carat diamond ring that the kids found and that the mother decides to wear].”

“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.”

The Glass Castle is the first book I read (and tremendously enjoyed) this year as part of the What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book with a type of house in the title.

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