I had heard from a few friends that The Glass Castle was the hot new book to read, and it made Bon’s Summer Reading List, so once I finished my latest book binge (Gillian Flynn’s other two books – Dark Places and Sharp Objects, then The Dinner which came recommended based on my love for Gone Girl) I decided to go for it. I put it on hold last week at the library, expecting to get it in a few weeks. To my excitement BAM it was ready for pickup on Monday!
I finished it yesterday, which is relatively fast for me, considering I wasn’t able to read at all on Thursday or Friday. The book was just so fluid and paced, and the stories so short it was easy to say “Ok, one more… But really, just one more… Ok seriously this is my last one…” the same way I do with those short little 22 minute Office episodes on Netflix. I’m a chain watcher, a chain reader.
I don’t know if it’s that I’m getting old and soft, or that being a teacher puts me in a more responsible, adult role, but I found myself relating more to Jeannette’s nurses, teachers, employers and any of the other small, SMALL handful of emotionally stable, mentally healthy adults in the book. Therefore I was incredibly angry and so protective throughout the entire book. And the teacher in me kept thinking – “Wow. These kids are brilliant. I hope I’d be able to see that as their teacher. I wonder if any of my kids have experiences like this.”
The Beard kept telling me to stop reading this book, because I’d be sprawled on the couch next to him reading silently one minute, then jerking upright to exclaim “Noooooo!” “Groooooooooosssss ewewewew!” or “HOW FREAKING DARE YOU YOU ARE THE WORST HUMAN BEING ON PLANET EARTH!”
But I told him to zip it. Because I was sometimes chuckling aloud. I was sometimes tearing up at the camaraderie and loyalty of these bright children. I was cheering them on as they excelled in school or successfully fixed a problem like their rock catapult or homemade braces.
The thing that made me the most sad, though, wasn’t their hunger, filthiness, injuries, embarrassment, abuse… although those did a mighty fine job of making me equal parts angry and depressed.
The saddest thing was watching Jeannette’s changing view of her father. The early chapters of the book are full of Jeannette as her father’s best friend and even partner-in-crime. She KNOWS without a doubt that he can do anything. He’s gonna build that Glass Castle. He’s gonna finish The Prospector. He’s gonna quit drinking. Venus is hers.
As you get to know him, you realize more and more how worthless he is, and you hope she’ll realize too. You find yourself siding with Lori when she says “Why do you always have to encourage him?!” Come on, Jeannette. See what a selfish, socially-delusional drunk your hero dad is. Stop trusting him. Stop putting your faith where it’ll just be continually falling out of the backseat of the car onto some railroad tracks.
But then she does see it. And then you feel so bad. I think everyone goes through this with their parents and adults they trust. You grow up thinking these people are all the things they say they are and all the things they want to be. As you get older and, more importantly, wiser, you see them say or do things inconsistent with your view of them. You see them fail. You hear people criticize them. You watch them fill up the Glass Castle foundation with garbage.
I guess the reason this was so traumatic to me was because it really was all they had. All she had was her faith in her father. Brian and Lori lost that faith long before her, so she clung to it all the more desperately. She finally lets go, I think, when she calls his bluff and makes him give her the belt. Their relationship is never the same.
Once she really leaves Welch and her nomadic life behind, once she no longer feels she is under their irresponsible spell, it comes full circle where she loves and pities them again. She knows her dad was never the hero she thought, but she finally accepts him for who he is – her alcoholic, pool-hustling, loving, dream-supporting dad. And that’s when I finally realized – “I judge people like Rex Walls all the time, but somewhere they’ve got a Jeannette that still sees the good that is definitely in them, regardless of their laziness or poor choices.”
This book largely influenced my recent blog post about awareness regarding my students. So many people judged and even hurt the Walls family. So many teachers, adults, friends, neighbors, employers just went on with their lives, not knowing these kids were rooting sandwiches out of the trash, reading leagues above their grade level, dragging their mom out of bed in the mornings to make her go to work so the could eat.
Am I the teacher who puts those kids in Special Education classes and patronizes them for their parent’s mistakes? Or am I the teacher who puts them in charge of the school newspaper and encourages them to aim higher?
Are you the neighbors who fight to have them evicted? Or are you the people who pay them to babysit and buy them bus tickets to New York?
This book left me with a humbling awareness of my lack of awareness. And a commitment to notice more, to help more, to encourage more. I want to believe there aren’t Jeannette Walls out there, but you know what? There are. Maybe even at my own school. And I want to do whatever I can to help them become the adult Jeannette Walls of today, rather than perpetuating the Rex and Mary stereotype.
I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It’s insane and infuriating and poignant and inspiring. It makes you believe in agency, in gumption, in hard work and, surprisingly, love.
If you’ve read it – let’s talk! If you haven’t, read it and THEN let’s talk. Or we can just talk regardless. I just like to talk.