The Glass Castle

Posted on January 3, 2014

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My friend Journalist gave me a book for Christmas. It was called “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. I will confess: it is not the sort of book I would typically pick out for myself. That said I do like to challenge myself from time to time and step out of my comfort zone of the Sci-Fi or suspense genres.

“The Glass Castle” was an excellent read. Maybe Journalist gave me the book to inspire better writing through reading excellent writing. Maybe Journalist gave me the book because, us both growing up in the 60’s in Texas we could relate to the author’s experience. Maybe Journalist gave me the book because she saw something in me, from my past, which could relate to the author’s experience. Whatever the reason, I thank you Journalist.

When I write a review, I try not to include spoiler alerts or to give too much info about the book. This may prove a challenge with this book.

Let’s start with this: it’s honest, solid writing. Her imagery and how she recalls her past is vivid and I could literally picture her environment and surroundings. I’ve never lived in the desert nor have I been to Nevada outside of Las Vegas but I felt myself scrambling on the hot sidewalks with her. I could smell the creosote, feel the buzzards and heat beating down on me from the whitewashed, sunbaked sky.

Other than that, I was in her life. Why: Partly because I lived it. Not to her extreme but I could share her desire for normalcy. I share her hunger and worn out clothes. I shared feeling shunned because she was not like the others.

Like the author though, my brother and I (and my cousins) made an adventure out of growing up. What we lacked materially we made up for with imagination, friends and a spirit of being in the moment, of living life. The author explored her desert and mountains; we chased cars and explored the city’s culverts and sewer systems. The author hunted demons in the desert with her dad while we hunted wasps and snakes and scorpions in the creeks, fields and ponds around our house.

I would like to say that’s where our similarities ended but that would be misleading. Did Jeannette have a dysfunctional family? That’s hard to say. Aren’t we all dysfunctional in some way? Her parents did love her. And while most would say their parenting skills were atrocious and horrible, they did create a compassionate, caring, smart child. Could her childhood have been better? Many would say yes. But, in my opinion, what matters is that the author learned to stand on her own. And maybe, that was her parent’s goal.

For me, survival was being smarter than my peers, for finding a way out. Like the author, my dad too was a journeyman laborer most often working from contract to contract building, painting and renovating houses. Was he an alcoholic? I can’t answer that question. My mother accused him on being one, of spending more time at the bars than at the house. The problem is I rarely saw him drink save for the occasional beer at a family function. And as an adult, I never saw alcohol pass his lips. My mother was a bookkeeper who worked to help put food on the table, to do her best to keep us kids from going hungry, and to keep somewhat decent clothes on us. She even went as far as making our own clothes one year.

But unlike the author, I never felt in fear for my life. I never felt threatened. I never had to scavenge for food in dumpsters or wait for the other kids to throw out their lunches. I knew we were poor, but we made do and we were happy enough.

Similar to the author, about the time I reached junior high I knew there had to be a better way. I had joined a Boy Scout troop the summer before I entered middle school and three days after my first meeting I was on a bus to Colorado for summer camp. My dad used scrap bits of lumber and plywood to make me a foot locker. We went to the thrift stores and Army/Navy store for cheap backpacks, sleeping bags and other camping gear. It was a trip that changed my life. Why? There was a world and a life outside of Roosevelt Street. I longed for a way out. I didn’t need to get away from Battle Mountain, NV or Welch, WV but I did need to have my own escape. I needed away from Arlington, TX.

It took me nearly 20 years to make my escape much longer than Jeannette. It took two marriages and a wife who believed in me. It took two majors, working and going to school full-time while raising a family. It took me finding the courage to cut the ties with my family and to be my own man. It just took the author much less time and much more courage than me.

In the end, we are we have allowed our life and experiences to make of us. We are chiseled, hardened, molded, smoothed and shaped by time and experience. I am who I am now because of those experiences. And like the author, I could have accepted what I was given, been content with the situation. I could have followed my parent’s footsteps and accept the mantra “once poor always poor”. Jeanette and I could still be in our metaphorical Battle Mountains. But life is in us. Experience is in us.

I do not blame my parents for my childhood. They did what they did, what they thought they had to do. I don’t feel guilty that I have seen the world while they still lived within 20 miles of where they grew up, my dad budgeting every cent he brought in up until the day he died. We all make choices and I, like the author, chose life.

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Posted in: Book Review