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Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Glass Castle

In our county, we've recently had furious disagreement over school reading lists. Leading the way of disapproved books was The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. I'm always curious to know what causes people to want to keep their children away from certain books so I read The Glass Castle myself. Let me say, up front, that it is a wonderful book. It is touching and entertaining and heartwarming and heartrending every step of the way.

The Glass Castle is an autobiographical book about a family that is unorthodox, to say the least. The parents deliberately cut themselves off from anything most of us would consider normalcy, preferring to live in slums and squats than regular houses. Always have to "skedaddle" because of unpaid bills. Dad is an alcoholic and Mom fancies herself an artist, refusing to work to bring money into the house even when she had hungry children, in favor of concentrating on her art.

The kids' lives include a gamut of experiences. They are often cold and/or hungry. They sneak food out of the trash can that their school mates throw away. Sometimes they go to school and sometimes they don't. They are made fun of by the other children because they are dirty and don't know obvious things other students know. Their parents just shrug all this off. They never worry about what others think of them and value self-sufficiency above all. If their kids get beaten up, they simply tell them to go fight harder next time.

On the other hand, they go on adventures. They sleep in the desert under the stars as their father teaches them about the constellations, along with many other things. They can read long before most children and have an expansive vocabulary and scientific knowledge. Their father is brilliant intellectually and can build anything. He has detailed drawings of the Glass Castle he is someday going to construct for his family. When the kids are young, they work on the plans, each child getting to make his or her room into whatever they want it to be. In real life, when the stairs to their shack become so rickety, they aren't safe, he never bothers to repair them.

In their early years, the Walls children simply accept what is. They love their parents, especially their visionary, impractical father. As time goes on though, they begin to lose faith and wonder why they have to live the way they do. They no longer believe in the glass castle as Dad falls deeper into the whiskey bottle and Mom distances herself from the every day world by focusing on painting.

One by one, the kids escape. The oldest daughter, Lori, takes a bus to New York when she graduates. When she has established herself, she sends for Jeannette who is a junior in high school, then Brian, the brother, when he is a junior. And finally their baby sister. Eventually, their parents come to New York too but they remain the same diehard independents they've always been. They are homeless, cadging food from dumpsters and sleeping in the park, refusing to let their children help them.

The book is a classic case of how love can exist side-by-side with the most unbelievable dysfunction within a family. And how some children rescue themselves. Yes, there is cussing and yes, there are some graphic descriptions of attempted child molestation but there are also incredible scenes of courage and self-reliance and sticking together. It is a book that reaches some deep part of your heart.

If I had a child, I would not only let them read The Glass Castle as part of an assignment, I would provide it for them if the school didn't.

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