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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Glass Castle: Book Review & Breaking Family Patterns

Over the weekend I read "The Glass Castle", by Jeannette Walls. This is truly an amazing book. I picked this book up, or rather, it found me, at the Biscuit Eater (my favorite cafe and second hand book store), where it was screaming to come home with me. I recognized the author, having already read "Half Broke Horses" by Jeannette Walls. In fact, I talked about that book on this blog as well because it had a big impact on me. You can read it at

"The Glass Castle" is a memoir. Which means,Jeannette Walls had a pretty wild childhood. And "wild" might be the best way to describe it. It is a story of survival through poverty, alcoholism and events that most of us will ever only read about it books. But why is that? When I first started reading the book, I kept checking to figure out what year the characters were living in. I saw the author's picture on the back and figured her to be somewhere in my age bracket and yet, I kept trying to find a way to "separate" her childhood from mine. It didn't seem like we could possibly have grown up in the same era and have such different experiences. Not only were we born very close to the same time, I was graduating from University the same year Jeannette did. Our mothers were both educated as teachers in a time when that wasn't so common, and our fathers were both very prominent figures in our lives.

So, I figured it must be the difference between United States and Canada. Jeannette moves around from the American Southwest to a mining town in West Virginia. We never moved around. We always lived about a mile from the outskirts of the coal mining town my father went to school in until he dropped out. Hmm...

Surely in Canada, social services, or teachers, or neighbours would have stepped in? But, when I took a real hard look back I have to look at my world differently. I think about kids on my school bus and the houses they got picked up from. I remember stories I heard from my mother about children she taught. I remember her trying to sneak in extra things that might help them- including the occasional apple or sandwich. I remember the kids we didn't like to sit beside, just because they were so smelly and dirty. I think about the kids that always wanted to come to my house after school but I never went to theirs.

Jeannette with her brother and two sisters, often ended up fending for themselves, despite their parents destructive behavior. But it isn't that typical "rises to the top despite it all" story, nor is it a psychoanalysis of anyone. I found all the characters likable. There was no villain in this story and I think that's what makes it such an interesting read. It's almost "matter of fact" and I found myself understanding, or at least accepting, what her parents did because of who they were.

Her parents were breaking a family pattern. This is a story of healing. It's not just healing for Jeannette and her siblings. In my opinion, it's a story of a family healing through generations. When you read "Half Broke Horses", you get an idea of the family Jeannette's mother comes from. Jeanette's ancestors think "outside the box" and perhaps aren't appreciated as much in their own lifetimes as they are later, for the legacy they leave behind. Because it takes a few generations to get to really see the change. Each generation gets to, and in some cases is forced to, extend the boundaries, and in that way the box becomes so much bigger. In "The Glass Castle" you also get a glimpse of the background Jeannette's father came from and you appreciate how he is trying to break away from something as well and encouraging his children to take it to the next step.

In some weird kind of way, I found myself almost envying Jeannette and her siblings, or at least admiring them for their incredible abilities to thrive. By the age of six, Jeannette had more practical skills and abilities to survive in the world than most of us acquire in a lifetime. The Walls most definitely live by the motto "what doesn't break you makes you stronger". And there is no question in my mind that Jeannette Walls is one of the strongest people you would ever meet.

Part of her strength is evidenced in the fact that she wrote her story for all the world to read. Although there were times when she went to great lengths to hide her background and the reality of her situation, all those walls have come down now and she tells her story in the ultimate "exposure".

This book made me rethink my own childhood from some different perspectives and consider the family pattern I have. I believe it's through those family patterns that we all evolve. Some of us are luckier than others for sure. But it might be more difficult than we think to determine which ones are the luckier. I think this book has enabled me to think about people and their journeys in a different way. For that I acknowledge, thank, and applaud Jeannette Walls for her courage to explain in such an entertaining way.

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