Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Review: "The Glass Castle", Unbelievable and Unforgettable

   Last week, a friend recommended "The Glass Castle" as one of the best books she has ever read. Quickly purchasing the trade paperback, "The Glass Castle" came with me on vacation. I could not put it down. I still cannot stop talking about it and thinking about this amazing story of survival during the 1960's in America from the childhood eyes of the author. I have already purchased many more copies for Christmas presents.
   The autobiography begins in present day New York City. Jeannette Walls, the author, is meeting her husband for dinner. She is sitting in a taxi, looking out the window and catches a glimpse of a woman digging through a Dumpster. This woman is her dear Mother. Yes, her Mother is a homeless woman living on the streets of New York and her Mother prefers it that way.
   The authors' parents, Rose Mary and Rex Walls were married in 1956 in a traditional church ceremony. Her Mother was dressed in a lovely white wedding gown and her father dressed in a formal shawl collared white dinner jacket and black tuxedo pants reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in the movie Casablanca. Rex Walls was an Air force flyer and Rose Mary Walls was a beautifully educated teacher and from a well off, well mannered, landed Texas family.
    One wonders while reading this tale of constant chaos, what went so wrong that both parents ended up happily homeless, living in New York City. The simple answer is that they were both non-conformists.
   Rose Mary Walls' God given talent was that she was a true artist in every sense of the word. She was a dreamer, an eternal optimist, a lady with fine manners and knowledge of fine art and antiques, and considered her "Tra la la life" a wonderful adventure when she was not forced to work and when her husband was not drunk. No matter how dire the family's situation remained, over and over again, and no matter where the family lived, including in shacks and cars, Rose Mary carted her art supplies with her and chose to paint her pictures for her source of escapism, rather than, unfortunately, keeping an eye on her children.
  Rose Mary did, however, give her children a life of literature. Whatever town the family was near, Rose Mary Walls consistently got herself to the Public Library and checked out book after book for all her children to read. Reading was their saviour. Reading gave these children hope, a sense of belongingness in this life, and a happy escapism.
   Rex Walls' God given talent was that he could fix anything. He could fix cars and anything electric, including wiring a house. His life's dream was to design and build a glass castle heated by solar panels.  The sun, after all, is forever and free. More importantly to Rex the dreamer, one does not have to pay any corporation or entity for the privilege of receiving electricity or anything else. Rex did not believe in dependence on anyone or anything, especially any government, church, hospital, corporation, or any charitable organization. He believed in self-sufficiency to the point that this belief became a primitive, viking-like, pioneering and post nuclear survival philosophy. This manic philosophy of life may sound genius on paper, but in practice, proved to be a bit bi-polar, or maybe a bit "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" resulting from his own stark, starving, cruel childhood in the poorest part of the Appalachian mountains, Welch,West Virginia. For better and for mostly much worse, this strict survival mode mantra was how the Walls family lived and Rex was head of the household.
   Why do some people get going and work themselves into a frenzy to prosper against terrific odds while other people simply rely on others for help when life gets rough? Why do some horses want to be first in a horse race and other horses don't really care? Wanting to succeed has little to do with money, breeding or upbringing. All material things and certain qualities are nice and may help, but success comes down to personal drive. An inner hunger of sorts. It seems as if it is a personality. Utilizing one's God given talent helps as well. Everyone has at least one talent.
   The largest lesson in this book is: no matter the hardships life will throw at you, you will always be able to use your good, resourceful mind to learn, strive and work your way out of any situation if you choose to do so. It is also helpful psychologically if you have the support of your family, any family, and/or friends. One thing Rose Mary and Rex did for their children was to give them a sense of togetherness, and a lasting sense of the importance of family and sticking together always.
   In this age of avarice and envy in America, this book is a reminder of the resourcefulness and drive we have lost as an affluent, free society. It also reminds us of what good can be accomplished again with a lot of hard work and perseverance in gaining back our sense of togetherness and purpose in our personal lives, communities and country.