[Reviewed by Christopher Nyerges, www.ChristopherNyerges.com]
I was recently given a copy of “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls and told “Just read it. You’ll like it. It’s about self-reliance, sort of, and homelessness, sort of, but I think you’ll find it fascinating.”
I took the book and began reading it little by little. It’s Jeanette Walls’ true story of growing up with her siblings, and their life constantly on the move. It was gritty and unpleasant to read about a father who was very skillful and knowledgeable, but exaggerated and drank too much. And the mother was always trying to make the best of a bad situation, and seemed too willing to do too little to resolve a bad situation. As usual, the children get the short end of the stick.
We read how the children figured out how to feed, clothe, and protect themselves under these difficult conditions.
The father, though very talented and skilled, couldn’t seem to hold a job. Due to the father’s fear of authorities, and lack of bill-paying, the family would frequently pack up in the middle of the night and “skedaddle” to a new home. When they had to do the skedaddle, they’d just bring the essentials: a big black cast-iron skillet, the Dutch oven, some Army surplus tin plates, a few knives, the father’s pistol, and the mother’s archery set.
At age four, Jeanette asked her sister, “How many places have we lived?”
“That depends on what you mean by ‘lived.’ If you spend one night in some town, did you live there?” responded her sister Lori. “What about two nights? Or a whole week?”
They determined that they lived somewhere if they unpacked, and though they lost count of how may places they lived after eleven.
And along they way they learned plenty of survival skills. They could go days without eating, and they learned to find food: foraging for cactus and wild plants, in trash cans, gleaning in fields. They learned to deal with extreme heat and cold since their homes never had cooling or heating. They learned how to fight and face down a threat, how to do without when necessary, how to cook, how to build things from scratch. They learned how to sew, but realized it was cheaper to just buy clothes at a thrift store.
In the pages of “The Glass Castle,” we begin to despise a very predictable father, but Jeanette still loves him. It’s her father, after all.
Eventually, Jeanette Walls realizes that her best escape from that world was to go to school, which she did, and to get a job, which she did. She discovered that the “real world” was very different from the isolationist world of fear and alcohol that her father had described to her.
“The Glass Castle” was on the New York Times bestseller list. It made me count my blessings. If I ever thought that I had it rough growing up in suburban Pasadena, this book convinced me that I emphatically did not. Plus, the book is worth reading for the occasional, practical, hard-earned survival tips, in the context of a family’s daily struggle for sheer survival.
Walls explains that her mother taught them to get by on next to nothing. How to use wild edible plants. How to find water where there seemed to be none. How to get by on very little water. How to clean up with just a cup of water. The mother “said it was good for you to drink unpurified water, even ditch water, as long as animals were drinking from it. Chlorinated city water was for namby-pambies, she said. Water from the wild helped build up your antibodies. She also thought toothpaste was for namby-pambies,” teaching the children to use baking soda instead.
The book will make you laugh in parts, but mostly it will make you cry, and appreciate whatever it is that you have in life. I highly recommend this book. [“The Glass Castle” is published by Scribner, 2005]