My sister saw The Glass Castle
on my coffee table and said, “Oh, I read that. It’s kind of . . .” then she paused and we both were awkwardly silent for a minute. “Well, I was going to say, it’s kind of like us, a little bit, but not –“
“Yeah,” I said. “I wasn’t going to say it – because not all of it – “
“Yeah, not all of it.”
We didn’t talk about it again.
When I first saw this book, I think I died a little inside because of the cover. I didn’t hate [b:The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood|137791|Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood|Rebecca Wells|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327798212s/137791.jpg|1010054] like I hated [b:The Mermaid Chair|7072422|The Mermaid Chair|Sue Monk Kidd|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1355841131s/7072422.jpg|1408375] or (*shudder*) [b:Bastard out of Carolina|25354|Bastard Out of Carolina|Dorothy Allison|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309209892s/25354.jpg|51364], but when there’s a little girl on the cover of a book, looking all innocent, it’s like a movie with the word “Education” in the title. You just know you’re in for a published trip to the psychiatrist’s couch. Kiddy-sex and soul-searching. I’m not saying people shouldn’t tell their stories (I mean, look at me, I’m all up in your website telling my stories), but I do think people should get a handle on what their story is before they try to tell it. Or at least before they make me read it. Sorry, that’s kind of asshole-ish of me to say, but I just think a lot of books with innocent little girls on the cover are really arrogant. They have this sense that since some man did something horrifying, everything that women do, including dancing around a fire with girlfriends or taking exotic lovers, is just part of the loving circle of nature’s healing. I am such a fan of women, and so I take it personally when we look like morons.
This book has absolutely nothing in common with its cover. I haven’t written a review of it before because I think it is a perfect book, and how do you review a perfect book? I’m like Wayne and Garth when they meet Alice Cooper. This book is my Alice Cooper. I’m sure it wouldn’t be everyone’s Alice Cooper, but to me this is exactly what a book should be. Everything about the book is simple, concise, and action-packed. It makes me laugh and it makes me cry. The people are incredible, but deep and smart and human. In some ways, I think this book is the Great American Story, but it’s the story none of us talk about and all of us live. In other ways, the book is so specific and personal to the Walls family that I never would have imagined the stories if I had not been told them.
[a:Virginia Woolf|6765|Virginia Woolf|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1313430596p2/6765.jpg] and [a:Rainer Maria Rilke|7906|Rainer Maria Rilke|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1186095474p2/7906.jpg], two of the wisest people I have read, both ask when and how women will be able to tell stories without being self-conscious that they are women. How can we write, or even live, not as reactions to men, but as separate masters of our own experiences? I don’t know where the genders are on the space/time continuum of respecting each other, and I think there are probably gender-related specifics to any story (maybe that’s just natural and not even bad), but there is something about this book that is just human and strong. It is compassionate and unflinching. Oh, I hate adjectives. Just, read the first chapter of this book, and if you don’t think it’s compelling, don’t keep reading because it’s probably not for you.
My family was nomadic, like Jeannette Walls’s family, but, like I say, all of her stories, and my stories, are unique. When I last lived with my parents, it struck me that we never really understand other people’s relationships with each other. I grew up, probably as many of us did, thinking that my parents never really got along and that my mom was a victim of my dad’s anger and wild scheming. But, later, I realized they probably both got something that I never understood out of their relationship. I think a lot of this book is about how we know the people we are close to and, also, never really do – how it is useless to hold other people to our own standards of what love or responsibility looks like. But, still, it is about holding each other responsible. Or, maybe the book is just about her family with no real moral lesson at all. Walls is so loyal to her stories in an almost scientific way. None of the adult outrage that contaminates so many stories of children creeps into Walls’s. She tells you what happened, and maybe how she felt about it at the time, but she doesn’t impose emotion on the reader. Here’s just a small part (well, actually, half . . . I couldn’t resist) of the first chapter to give you a little taste:Mom was sitting at a booth, studying the menu, when I arrived. She’d made an effort to fix herself up. She wore a bulky gray sweater with only a few light stains, and black leather men’s shoes. She’d washed her face, but her neck and temples were still dark with grime.
She waved enthusiastically when she saw me. “It’s my baby girl!” she called out. I kissed her cheek. Mom had dumped all the plastic packets of soy sauce and duck sauce and hot-and-spicy mustard from the table into her purse. Now she emptied a wooden bowl of dried noodles into it as well. “A little snack for later on,” she explained.
We ordered. Mom chose the Seafood Delight. “You know how I love my seafood,” she said.
She started talking about Picasso. She’d seen a retrospective of his work and decided he was hugely overrated. All the cubist stuff was gimmicky, as far as she was concerned. He hadn’t really done anything worthwhile after his Rose Period.
“I’m worried about you,” I said. “Tell me what I can do to help.”
Her smile faded. “What makes you think I need your help?”
“I’m not rich,” I said. “But I have some money. Tell me what it is you need.”
She thought for a moment. “I could use an electrolysis treatment.”
“I am serious. If a woman looks good, she feels good.”
“Come on, Mom.” I felt my shoulders tightening up, the way they invariably did during these conversations. “I’m talking about something that could help you change your life, make it better.”
“You want to help me change my life?” Mom asked. “I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are all confused.”
“Mom, I saw you picking through trash in the East Village a few days ago.”
“Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It’s my way of recycling.” She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. “Why didn’t you say hello?”
“I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid.”
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. “You see?” she said. “Right there. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.”
“And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”
“Just tell the truth,” Mom said. “That’s simple enough.”
It’s been a while since I read this book, so a lot of the stories aren’t fresh in my mind, but some are so vivid to me that I think of them whenever I see a trash can or think of the desert. In high school, I thought that American history was the most boring topic imaginable. Then, in college, I took a class called the History of Women in the U.S., and I realized that I think the history of industry and conquest is mind-numbing, but the history of actual people is riveting. The Glass Castle
is a real, honest history (or as honest as histories can be) of people in America. It is so close to me and so foreign in just the way this country is.
It is also, in a way, a tribute to family oral histories. My dad has a . . . loose . . . relationship with the truth, as I’ve probably mentioned on this site before. In the past couple of years, every time I see one of my siblings, we sit around and tell stories from my dad or about my dad, trying to weed out what actually happened, what got a nice polish in the story factory, and what is an outright lie. I get that same feeling from this book – of siblings sitting around and saying, “Do you remember . . .” and “You weren’t there this one time . . .” or “No, that’s just what Dad said
happened, what actually happened was . . .” I’m sure someday, my siblings and I will put together a history of our own, since every one of us seems to have inherited the storytelling gene. Whatever I write will be in some way inspired by this book.