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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle: A MemoirThis week the BPL Book Club met to discuss the memoir, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Plot summary from the publisher:
The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette's brilliant and charismatic father captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn't want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing -- a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar, but loyal, family. Jeannette Walls has a story to tell, and tells it brilliantly, without an ounce of self-pity.
On a personal note, I loved reading this book. I was totally caught up in the "story" and literally had to tear myself away from the book at times. But upon reflection, I felt a bit bad that I "loved" the book so much, since it was about so much misery. But I will get into this in our discussion.

Here's what the ladies had to say about it:

All 13 of of us loved the book. No one was even in the "so-so" camp. We all loved it even though bad things were happening to the kids. We decided that Walls' tone is what allowed us to still enjoy this book. She never whined, complained, or blamed anyone for their life. She mater-of-factly told us her story. As a result, it read as a "compelling," "amazing," story of survival. Many of the ladies said the book inspired them to stop complaining about their own lives. Walls' was a testament to the fact that you can overcome any adversity as long as you do not let yourself get overwhelmed by it. I really liked this last statement.

The parents, Rex and Rose Mary were discussed at length. First the positive. No matter how terrible you think they were as parents, they obviously gave their children a solid foundation to survive and be successful.

Rex: He loved his kids and wanted their respect. He had pride, but he never came through for the kids. His Glass Castle, which Jeannette finally tells him she knows he will never build as she leaves home for NYC, symbolizes much of his personality- his grand plans, for which he was brilliant enough to accomplish, but too much of a drunk to fulfill. We tended to agree that Rex's alcoholism is what wrecked the Walls family, but it is the revelation in the last half of the book that Rex was almost definitely the victim of sexual abuse by his mother that made us at least understand his addiction.

Rose Mary: We were very upset with her selfishness. Things like eating chocolate bars while her kids are literally starving, refusing to sell her land, which we find out is worth 1 million dollars, not working unless forced to even though she easily can get a job as a teacher in each town they live in, refusing food stamps, not selling the diamond ring Lori finds because it is "pretty." Rose Mary was obsessed with teaching her children to be independent, but it was to an extreme. When things got really bad, she didn't even seem to care. She said to "think of it as an adventure." This attitude of never complaining despite a terrible situation was the mother's one true gift to her children; it probably is what allowed them to not only survive, but become so successful despite the odds. We also agreed she must have had some kind of mental illness.

I asked straight out if people thought that the Walls' children should have been removed from the household by social services. This led to an interesting discussion. Overall we thought no because the parents were educating their kids, the kids went to school, they did manage to find food, and there was no physicial or sexual abuse. Walls does provide many examples of children in much more danger than herself too.

Style: One participant did find the short chapters a bit choppy at times. Another liked the short,vinette style because it gave her time to read a chapter and then sit back to absorb it and think how she would have handled those situations. Yet another participant mentioned that the chapters had to be short or else it would be too heartbreaking. Also, she noted that if you go back, Walls did a great job ending each chapter with a beautifully written last sentence or two.

Tone: As I mentioned in the first bullet point, we liked how Walls told her story without placing blame. As one participant put it, in our hypercritical society, it was inspiring to just have her tell her story. It took such courage to write this book.

We also discussed what scenes we found most memorable. The scene at the beginning when Jeannette is 3 and burns herself badly while cooking herself a hot dog: many could not get this scene out of her head for the entire book. It really sets up everything that comes after. Another mentioned how the dad could fix people's TVs with a macaroni noodle. This shows the brilliance of Rex, despite everything. The most heartbreaking scene is when Rex takes Jeannette to the bar with him and all but prostitutes her out. We also discussed the scene when Jeannette is taken to the public pool by her black friend, where she is the only white person. Jeannette falling out of the car and waiting for her parents was memorable because it shows how Jeannette knows she is loved.

This book has 2 distinct sections. When they live out West in the desert and when they live in Welch, WV. In the first section we discussed how there was still hope in their lives. Even we, the readers, had hope that the parents would pull it together. But when they move to WV, all hope is gone. Why don't they leave? I asked this because up until they move to WV, they pick up and move all of the time. We decided that they stayed because when he went back to his hometown, Rex reverted to being a child and that was the end of moving until the kids got up and left their parents.

Finally, I asked the group what Jeannette inherited from each of her parents. We decided that her pride and stubbornness came from her father and her creativity from her mother. This book is like her therapy, to come to terms with where she came from and to admit it openly. It gives her closure and lets her tell her own story for herself.
    When asked to sum up the appeal of The Glass Castle in a few words here's what the group had to say: inspirational, intriguing (with the prologue setting up Walls as wealthy and Mom as homeless, you are compelled to read how they each got there), soul-wrenching, heartbreaking, and a triumph of the human spirit.

    Overall I was extremely pleased with this discussion. Even though we all loved it, we still had a dynamic discussion. In fact, we discussed things like style and tone much more than usual. And, we had a great time too ! Kudos to the group.

    Readalikes: There is a glut of memoirs about unique childhoods out there, many involving abuse. Since The Glass Castle does not have much of this (the dunk father is fairly harmless compared the the drunk mother in Running With Scissors), I will offer more "tame" but unique family memoirs.

    *A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel follows Kimmel's unique upbringing in rural Iowa.

    *Naked by David Sedaris is one of his earlier collections and has a lot of essays about his dysfunctional but  hilarious family.

    *The Bookmaker's Daughter by Shirley Abbot was a suggestion I found on NoveList. It has the rural upbrinning of The Glass Castle (here it is Arkansas) but it takes place in the 1940s and 50s. There is also the troubled father-daughter relationship.

    *My group also read The Liar's Club many year's ago, but Mary Karr's family is more abusive than Walls' imo, and Karr does spend more time placing blame than Walls.

      In terms of fictional readalikes, the first half of the book (in the desert) reminded me of The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver and the second half (in Appalachia) reminded me of the novels of Fannie Flagg.

      My ladies also offered readalikes during the discussion. One mentioned that the scenes with Jeannette's black friend reminded her of The Color Purple . And another mentioned Angela's Ashes.

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