Sunday, February 28, 2010

Castle Dreams

Book Review

The Glass Castle

A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls had a most unusual upbringing. Her parents could easily be described as both eccentric and disturbed. Her father Rex was keenly intelligent, an electrical engineer by training, but pretty much out of the reality loop because he couldn't stop drinking. Rose Mary, Jeannette's mom, didn't drink but had a compulsion that could be almost as problematic: she was an artist.

Unfazed by the daunting demands of child rearing, Rex and Rose Mary indulged their obsessions to the point of near criminality. Brian, Lori, Jeannette, and Maureen were left to fend for themselves, their care and maintenance a virtual self-help program. But despite all the apparent neglect, a strange and subtle kind of love was always there—just beneath the surface of the chaos that never seemed to go away. Amid the madness, an unlikely richness permeated the lives of the Walls children. Even if food for the body wasn't always available, they learned—by mere osmosis—that sustenance for the spirit was in plentiful supply. All they had to do was look around. Reading, writing, art, science—all there just for the asking.

Walls brings us in close as she recalls a life she knew was not normal but bravely embraced nonetheless. To anyone cursed with parents too compromised mentally and conflicted emotionally to provide that normal life other kids seemed to have, Walls' story is a poignant reminder of both the horrors and the hope such a contorted existence can bring.

To be sure, the Wallses didn't set out to live lives of such want and poverty. But it was as much mismanagement as misfortune that forced Rex to round up Mom and the kids every so often and "do the skedaddle" as Rex liked to say. In dozens of backward towns, from California to Arizona to West Virginia, they found sanctuary—short-lived though it always was—from those who didn't seem to appreciate them for their peculiar ways. And it was always just a matter of time before the bill collectors, health authorities or FBI agents—at least the ones in Rex's mind—began to close in and force the family on to its next unknown destination.

Keeping alive a sliver of hope for a better life was Rex's self-appointed task. Out of whole cloth, he fabricated tall tales and exotic plans for one day striking it rich. All he had to do was perfect his gold-prospecting gadget or get that patent on his new energy-saving device or figure out how to—well, you get the picture. In any event, Rex promised his family they would one day live in a grand house out in the desert, one which would be powered by his patented solar energy system. Here in their dream home they would live and want for nothing. Rex even had a name for his pie-in-the-sky mansion. He called it The Glass Castle.

Dreams of one day living in The Glass Castle notwithstanding, years of sleeping inside cardboard boxes in homes so blighted and broken down that rain often poured freely through the roof was wearing on Jeannette and the other children. And so they, too, dreamed. They dreamed of one day breaking free of the clutches of lard sandwiches, mad parents, and virtual destitution.

Walls seems to almost congratulate herself when she realizes that she has indeed escaped and is holding down a very good writing job while living in a Park Avenue apartment in the city of her dreams—New York. But one day she is crudely reminded that some things in life are more difficult to escape than others. Noticing a woman picking through the garbage of a nearby dumpster, she is jolted by the reality that the woman dredging through the dross is her mother. Yes, Rose Mary and Rex followed Jeannette to New York, and she must now confront her own affluence in the contrasting light of her parents' new home—the streets of the Big City.

To her credit, Walls stops short of outright condemnation when reflecting upon her parents' miscues, partly because much of their plight seemed so predestined—and partly because they are family and rejecting family is not something one does lightly.

A few years after Rex has passed on, Jeannette and her new husband John entertained the family at Thanksgiving. There's a suggestion of lingering bitterness when Brian, at the sight of an opulent feast on the dinner table says, "You know, it's not really that hard to put food on the table if that's what you decide to do." As if to admonish her brother for saying something that might bring back bad memories and hurt Rose Mary's feelings, Lori matter-of-factly interjects, "Now, no recriminations." John suggests they drink a toast to Rex, and Mom seizes the moment offering—with affection in her voice—what the grown children already knew: "Living with your father was never boring."

No, The Glass Castle never got built, but Rex and Rosemary, despite their flaws, may have unwittingly built something just as special—a family that has figured out how to love.

No comments:

Post a Comment