I would have never picked up The Glass Castle normally. I am not the biggest fan of memoirs, even though I love biographies and autobiographies of historical figures. But this title always repulsed me from the beginning.
My university hosted a "One Book, One Community" event every year in the effort to draw college students and the at-large community together through reading. I was never interested in it, as it seemed like a big disorganized mess. But the year this book came out, 2005, the university chose it. I heard about the novel through the grapevine and some resulting bad press.
I believe this was all around the time that James Frey was combating rumors about the legitimacy of his own memoir and that has always been stuck in my mind. For me memoirs = lies. Perhaps that is the wrong way to go about it, but I had a sour taste in my mouth.
So why did I read this?
This book is a requirement for seniors in the school district I am teaching in starting in January. And since I am teaching a section or two of senior English, I figured it might be a good idea to read this novel before I begin to teach it. I bought a copy and brought it home, eying it warily before diving into it one night.
And I was surprised. I was hooked and finished the book in one long sitting on my couch. It was moving and deep and beautifully written.
Jeannette tells the story of her childhood and the inattention her parents have for their children. Along with her two sisters and her brother, Jeannette is neglected. Her parents, while intelligent and ready to have children, seem to pay little attention to the kids once they come along. Neither parent holds down a steady job or paycheck. When money does come in, the kids learn to hide it from their father out of fear they won't eat.
In the beginning they travel from little town to little town by car. They stay only long enough to get what they need before moving on. The first scene of the novel is when a very young Jeannette burns herself by the stove (she is four) and has to spend an extended time in the hospital. Obviously the staff begins to ask questions, but before anything can be done, he father comes in and takes her out of the hospital before fleeing. This way of escaping is something the Walls family seems to do constantly.
Her parents are incredibly selfish. They make a home out of an old railroad depot for a couple of years and seem to be beginning to prosper. But in one rough patch, all that is left to eat is a stick of butter, which the girls split. Upon hearing that they ate it, the mother has a fit. There was another point in their lives that the family was starving, but the mother was gaining weight. The kids eventually caught her in bed with candy bars and after asking for food, their mother told them no and that she didn't want to share.
The kids and parents continuously live on the brink of poverty, but the parents don't see a problem with it. It also becomes clear that the kids need to take over and mature before their lives are ruined. The kids mature quickly and experience things that I haven't even experienced.
Jeannette was a victim of two sexual assaults-one a boy in the town with the railroad depot, and once by her uncle. Her parents didn't seem to care about either.
I was hooked, and pages were flipping quickly as I took in the story of the Walls family. A lot of it was disbelief, that parents would act this way towards their children. That a parent wouldn't care that their kids have nothing to eat and are freezing at night. That a parent would take their young teenage daughter to a bar to help hustle money, and not care when she was taken upstairs by a grown man.
Eventually the kids escape, one by one, to New York City. The parents eventually follow, but for once, the kids are allowed to live their lives in the way they should.
I was overwhelmed when I finished, so I had a long talk with Matt about the story as whole. A lot of the conversation steered towards how I was going to teach a novel of such desperation and poverty to the students in this district? The fact is, this district is one of the wealthiest in the state and the school where I am teaching contains the wealthier subdivisions in the district. I can guess that most of those kids won't be able to relate to these characters beyond pity, so I am struggling with how to make those connections.
I was moved by the story, having seen the truth behind it. I have taught in areas where poverty is apparent and I know that students I have had have come to school hungry and wishing that school lasted 7 days a week so they could have 7 meals/week as opposed to 5. I have seen some nasty things in the schools I have worked in and I know that stories like that of Jeannette Walls are still out there. But many of those kids will never escape it or find a way to voice it in the way that she did.
So yes, I certainly did love the book and many parts of me are excited to teach something that is so raw and powerful. I know that for many of my future students it will be their first real exposure to poverty. I am hoping that this book will shock them and get them to think about their own strengths and abilities to make the world that they are living in a better place. Cheesy? Yes, but sometimes students need a kick in the pants to see where their own power comes from.
My one concern was with some of the language. I don't have a problem with small amounts of nasty language. As a writer, I know that sometimes the only way I can get a point across is by a well-placed four letter word. It happens and I can accept that. But I am worried as to how I am going to teach this, especially when my most hated word in the world is a part of it (I am speaking of cun*). If I was a parent, I am sure I would have some issues with my children reading a book with that word in it. But, it can be a learning experience for me and the students, so hopefully no drama ensues when we get to that part of the book.
In any case, I am looking forward to exploring this deeper with my students and perhaps giving memoirs a second chance in the future.