Saturday 20 August 2011

The Glass Castle

"I had almost a hundred dollars saved, enough to get me started in New York.  I could leave Welch [West Virginia] in under five months. 

I got so excited that I started runnning.  I ran, faster and faster, along the Old Road overhung with bare-branched trees, then on to Grand View and up Little Hobart Street, past the barking yard-dogs and the frost-covered coal piles, past the Noe's house and the Parishes' house, the Hall's house and the Renkos' house until, gasping for air, I came to a stop in front of our house.  For the first time in years, I noticed my half-finished yellow paint job.  I'd spent so much time in Welch trying to make things a little bit better, but nothing had worked."

(The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls, page 370-371)

Jeannette Walls was one of four children born to Rose Mary and Rex Walls, and raised in abject poverty, first in Arizona and Nevada and later in West Virginia.  Her well-read father had an engineering background and had served in the air force during World War II.  He had dreams of building a glass castle one day for his family.  However, he was never able to keep a job since he was an alcoholic and drank away any money that he did get his hands on.  Her mother was educated as a teacher, but rarely held a job as one, choosing instead to develop her artistic talent as a painter.  She would spend hours painting, not having the inclination to even cook for her own children when they did have food in the house. 

Jeannette recalls a childhood accident when at the tender age of three she tried to cook hotdogs and spilled boiling water on herself leading to burns that required a skin graft.  Jeannette and her brother Brian enjoyed spending their early childhood in the desert, where their mother had also been raised, and recalled playing outdoors for hours chasing snakes and scorpions and toads.  Because the Walls could never pay their bills, they often had to "skeddadle" in the middle of the night and move to another town, becoming well-accustomed to a nomadic existence.

After deciding that Arizona held nothing more for them, they decided to move east to West Virginia, Rex's hometown.  They drove their current jalopy, a 1956 used Oldsmobile they bought for $200, across the country with their belongings strapped to the roof and got snickers from passersby.  Mrs. Walls commented that it was pretty bad when "you out-Okied the Okies".  Somehow, she was able to keep her sense of humour amidst all of the misery. 

Life in the Appalachian mountains in the early 1970's seemed not to have changed much since the time of the Hatfield's and the McCoy's, or at least since the Great Depression.  The main industry in Welch was coal mining, leaving the houses black as well as the miners' lungs.  Many families lived on food stamps.  The Walls' moved in with Rex's parents, to whom Rex had not spoken for years.  Rex's Mom greeted her grandchildren at the door with rotten teeth and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.  Jeannette and her siblings soon discovered that their grandparents were heavy drinkers and even made their own moonshine, stored in giant bottles in the basement. 

After staying with their grandparents for a few months, the Walls moved into their own home, a dilapidated house leaning on a hill with a rotting porch and no heat or hot water.  Jeannette and her brother Brian attempted to help their father realize his plan of building a glass castle by digging a foundation in the backyard.  However, Rex never put his plan into action and the large hole ended up serving as a garbage dump for the family since they could not afford garbage pick up.

With the father often disappearing for days on a bender and the mother immersed in her painting, the four children learned to fend for themselves.  They found food in the school cafeteria garbage cans or ate at a friend's house.  As they got older, they took part time jobs to improve their lot in life; however, often Rex found their hidden stash of money and wasted it in bars. 

While most residents of Welch never left the city limits, the Walls children realized that leaving West Virginia was their only hope for success.  They also realized that they could only change themselves, not their parents.  The oldest sibling Lori got the idea to become a professional artist in New York City and moved there when she graduated from high school.  Jeannette followed and got a part time job and within a couple of years saved enough money to enrol in Barnard College's journalism program.  Then brother Brian arrived and became a police officer.  Lastly, "baby" Maureen moved to New York and stayed with Lori  Four years after Jeannette came to the Big Apple, her parents followed suit.  While Jeannette lived on Park Avenue with her lawyer husband, her mother scavenged through dumpters looking for food.  For several months the Walls were homeless; Rose Mary told her daughter that life on the streets was one big adventure.  Eventually, however, they became squatters in an old building in the city. 

The Glass Castle is a superbly written memoir that sat on the New York Times bestseller list for 100 weeks after its publication in 2005.  Apparently, it is about to be made into a movie as well.  Once you read one page, you won't be able to set it down.

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