The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Title:  The Glass Castle

Author:  Jeannette Walls

Hardback:  288 pages

ISBN:  9780743247535

Dad came home in the middle of the night a few months later and roused all of us from bed.

“Time to pull up stakes and leave this shit-hole behind,” he hollered.

We had fifteen minutes to gather whatever we needed and pile into the car.

…An hour passed before we finally tied Mom’s paintings on the top of the car, shoved whatever would fit into the trunk, and piled the overflow on the backseat and the car floor.  Dad steered the Blue Goose through the dark, driving slowly so as not to alert anyone in the trailer park that we were, as Dad like to put it, doing the skedaddle.  He was grumbling that he couldn’t understand why the hell it took so long to grab what we needed and haul our asses into the car.

“Dad!” I said.  “I forgot Tinkerbell!”

“Tinkerbell can make it on her own,” Dad said.  “She’s like my brave little girl.  You are brave and ready for adventure, right?”

“I guess,” I said.  I hoped whoever found Tinkerbell would love her despite her melted face.  For comfort, I tried to cradle Quixote, our gray and white cat who was missing an ear, but he growled and scratched at my face.  “Quiet, Quixote!”  I said.

“Cats don’t like to travel,” Mom explained.

Anyone who didn’t like to travel wasn’t invited on our adventure, Dad said.  He stopped the car, grabbed Quixote by the scruff of the neck and tossed him out the window.  Quixote landed with a screeching meow and a thud, Dad accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.

“Don’t be so sentimental,” Mom said.  She told me we could always get another cat, and now Quixote was going to be  a wild cat, which was much more fun than being a house cat.  Brian, afraid Dad might toss Juju out the window as well, held the dog tight.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, pages 17-18

This incident haunted my mind throughout the whole book.  I couldn’t help think, “If they could just toss the cat out without a thought, telling me we could just get another, who’s to say they wouldn’t do that to me, as well?”  Later in the book when Jeannette takes a tumble out of the moving car, the same thought occurred to her as she watches the family disappear down the road.  “What if they decide I’m too much trouble to come back for?”  It had to be a terribly difficult uncertainty to grow up with.

Not only is there the impermanence of home and things, there are virtually no rules nor supervision, as the Rex, Jeannette’s father, spends much of his time “researching” at the local tavern and her mom, a narcissistic enabler with some sort of mood disorder fritters her time and money away escaping reality in books and painting.  Too many times to count, the kids are forced to go hungry… or worse, dig through garbage to find food… while Dad drinks and smokes the money away and Mom sneaks nibbles of Hershey bars hidden under her covers. 

On the rare occasion the mother works, it’s the kids who have to force her out of bed and onto school where she’s a teacher, then clean her classroom after school, grade her papers and make out her lesson plans in the evenings.  After spending 8 weeks away from Rex and the kids, living in a dorm, eating regularly and taking classes to keep her teaching licence up to date, she comes home to report she’s had an epiphany.  She tells her teenage daughter who has been handling the bills, working and feeding her siblings, that she’s spent her whole life taking care of everyone else and now she’s gonna live life for herself… say WHAT?!

yeah….. m’kay.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a shocking and heartbreaking memoir of growing up with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother.  Over and over, I was stunned and even angered by the so-called adults complete and total lack of parenting skills.  At one point, Jeannette, who was 7 or 8 at the time, wakes up to find a strange man touching her beneath her covers, and when she tells her parents maybe they should shut and locked the doors at night so as to keep the creeps out, they tell her some crap about fresh air and not letting fear get the better of you.  In her teens, when Jeannette tells her mom that her uncle has been inappropriate with her, her mother tells her he’s just lonely and that “sexual assault is a crime of perception.”  Time and again, these two genetic donors (calling them parents is going too far, to be honest), show a complete lack of common sense and sheer laziness to step up to the plate.  I am amazed that the kids lived to adulthood, let alone to be anything close as successful as they nationally syndicated columnist and regular contributor to MSNBC.  Brian and Lori also made good despite their upbringing.

One thing I can say about reading this book is that I can say with 100% certainty that I’m not that bad as a parent.  It’s done a lot to make me feel better as a parent… at least I shut the doors at night and feed my kids and make sure they bathe regularly.  I make sure they’re fed before I feed myself and I’d damn sure have food in the fridge AND pantry before gnawing on a Hershey bar.  I feel guilty if I decide not to share my candy bar.. or Lindt truffle balls, nom nom nom…  but that’s because they’ve ate plenty and had dessert, and By GOD, this is ONE thing I kept for myself.  And I feel guilty for THAT!  I can’t imagine the utter self-centeredness, truly clinical narcissism, the mother wallowed in.  Also, I can say with certainty to my kids that they’ve never gone hungry.  They may not like what’s in the cabinets, but there IS food… it’s just not ready-made junk for them to snack on. 

I read a few reviews of The Glass Castle, and one reader dinged the book because the author conveys such neglect and abuse in a very unemotional manner.  How could anyone suffer such a life without feeling a sense of indignity and injustice?  To this I must point out that Walls is a professional journalist, and relaying information in an objective, matter-of-fact way is part of the job, so I wasn’t surprised by that at all.  Also, I think it’s a normal part of the coping skills of an abuse survivor to learn to be able to talk about it with some distance and disconnection.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a great story of resilience and survival.  I don’t recommend it to be read in one sitting, as it can get emotionally overwhelming, but definitely a worthwhile read.   If I could ask Walls one question, I’d want to know how she thinks her life might have turned out without public libraries and books to turn to.  At times, it seems the only escape the kids had and a part of her best memories.  I give The Glass Castle 4 out of 5 stars.

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The White Mary by Kira Salak

 

The White Mary by Kira Salak

The White Mary by Kira Salak

Title: The White Mary: A Novel
Author: Kira Salak
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, LLC
Publish Date: 2008
ISBN: 9780805088472

The White Mary is journalist and author Kira Salak‘s first fictional novel. Salak opens the book with a letter to the reader explaining her own background and similarities to her main character, Marika Vecera, and with a little background of Papau New Guinea. As authors are so often advised to write what they know, Salak draws on her own experiences reporting in dangerous places and her extensive research of PNG for her book Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papau New Guinea. With her wealth of experience to draw on, Salak recreates an amazingly real world within the pages of The White Mary.

Marika Vecera is a broken soul. Experiencing pain and loss from the age of 6, when she lost her father in their native Czechoslavakia when he was executed as a spy against the communists. Her mother never recovered from the loss and eventually suffered a mental break, leaving her with schizophrenia. Marika has no one left in the world to care about her, and after reading a book by journalist superstar Rob Lewis, decides to follow in Lewis’s footsteps and becomes the rare female war reporter. Then when she least expects it, she finds love and the potential for happiness with Seb whose working on his psychology doctorate. When Marika hears the report of the suicide of her idol, Lewis, she decides to write his biography. While researching and interviewing Lewis’s sister, Marika comes across a letter that claims Lewis is still alive in Papau New Guinea. When she can’t get this idea out of her head, she decides to fly to PNG and find him.

This book is about one woman’s journey of learning to love and forgive herself, and to accept that life isn’t done to you, but that you have the choice to live in happiness or misery.

Real courage isn’t about visiting the world’s hells and returning alive to tell about it -it’s always been easy for her to risk her life, and even easier to get herself killed. What takes real courage is choosing to live, choosing to save herself at all costs. Which means looking into her darkness and pain, and figuring out how she got there, and how she can get out… She won’t do it just for herself, but for the world. For all the ugliness in it. And for all the grace.

The White Mary by Kira Salak, page 347

For my part, I could really relate to Marika. I understood her motivations, and could really feel for her. The walls she built to protect herself from pain, her distrust of anything good and happy, her self-destructive behaviors in order to not think or feel for five minutes, are all very real to me. The journey through Papau New Guinea was on the surface a search for her hero, but really it was a journey within herself and ultimately presented her with the choice of shutting down and becoming bitter and withdrawn or choosing a life of happiness and love and a part of society.

I would have to say, though, if you are religiously sensitive to polytheism, animism and atheism, this book might not be for you. Given the subject matter, you must realize it’s got a bit of an agnostic at best spiritual thread. It opens with a Gnostic quote, argues a angry, cruel and unjust god who plays favorites throughout the book, and ends with Marika acknowledging “God/the Universe/Whoever/Whatever” moves in the world. It weaves in a little Hinduism and Buddhism along the way, as well. And, for good measure, throws in a pervie pastor. It’s not specifically anti-christian, but it could offending the religiously sensitive.

Also, this book contains graphic imagery of rape, genocide, and torture. One particular scene towards the end is stomach turning and difficult to read. It has several graphic sexual passages, including outside the normal types.

One side note: I think The White Mary would make a brilliant movie. I think it would translate to the big screen very well. It’s full of exotic scenery, suspense and action, with a spirituality very popular today. The book had a Sean Connery’s Medicine Man feel to it with the surly antisocial doctor gone somewhat native and the outsider woman who finds him.